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Monday, November 12, 2018 - 07:00

Serendipity has once again set up a series of related entries on this blog. When sorting through the recent journal article haul from the Journal of the History of Sexuality, this one jumped out at me as relating to the topic of classical Greek romance novels. I think it reads well as a pairing with the summary of the Babyloniaka from last week. Gorman takes a complex look at the various messages--both intentional and inadvertent--sent by using the Greek romance as a template for early Christian "adventure stories" um...that is...apocrypha. References to Boswell in the discussion here remind me that I still haven't yet covered either of his major works on same-sex relations in the context of early Christianity. If you want a reason beyond "there are a lot of publications and I haven't gotten to them yet" I think it would be equal parts annoyance at his blythe assumption that you can do all your research on men and wave your hands about how it applies to women, and the certainty that people looking for research sources for same-sex relations in that ear are unlikely to be unaware of Boswell's work. (There's also the complicating issue that many historians of sexuality in the early Christian period take issue with some of Boswell's arguments and conclusions.) I'll get to them. Eventually. In the mean time, hey, more wacky ancient Greek romance novels! This time with Christian theology!

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Full citation: 

Gorman, Jill. 2001. “Thinking with and about ‘Same-Sex Desire’: Producing and Policing Female Sexuality in the ‘Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena’” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:3/4 pp.416-441

This article examines the plot and narrative structure of the 4th century Christian Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena (AXP) within the context of the genre of Greek romance novels of the time. A high-level summary of the structure of a Greek romance is “two souls who are--or wish to be--joined together, who go through adventures, separations, and trials that test their commitment and devotion to each other, and are rewarded by being (re)united and enjoying an ongoing social union.” The Greek romance operated within a pagan context, but the narrative structure was borrowed for Christian folk-literature such as the apocryphal acts of the apostles. In structure, the story of Xanthippe and Polyxena follows most of the romance novel pattern: the two women enjoy a loving and devoted relationship, are parted by force, and Polyxena, at least, experiences abductions, escapes, and other adventures typical of a Greek heroine before finally being reunited with Xanthippe. At which “...seeing Polyxena, [Xanthippe] was overcome by an unspeakable joy and fell to the ground; but Polyxena embracing her and caressing her for a long time brought her back to life.”

In other important respects, AXP diverges from the romance formula, including the fact that shortly after their reunion, Xanthippe dies, entrusting Polyxena to the oversight of the apostle Paul. And even while creating parallels with the romantic couple of the Greek novel, it undermines and condemns their desire for each other. This relates to Brooten’s (1996) exploration of how early Christian writings marginalized and disparaged relations between women.

The article discusses how the treatment of same-sex relations in late antiquity is more often concerned with social power and knowledge than with specific sex acts. So how might the framing of X&P as a romantic couple serve some other discursive purpose? Gorman considers the question in four parts: how the narrative frames Xanthippe and Polyxena as the protagonists of a romance novel; how conflicts about gender shape the understanding of their bond within the text; what a Foucaultian analysis says about the sociopolitical agendas around women’s same-sex bonds; and how this depiction of commitment between women adds to our understanding of female same-sex relations in the late antique world.

AXP can be viewed as consisting of two narrative halves: the first telling the story of Xanthippe and how she separates from her husband after the arrival of the apostle Paul and her conversion. The second half tells the story of the beautiful young Polyxena who is abducted from Xanthippe’s bedroom in the middle of the night and, after many other adventures, abductions, and perils, achieves Christian baptism and returns home, still safely a virgin. The rupture of Xanthippe’s marriage follows the standard plotline for Christian ascetic texts. But the relationship between the two women then takes up the tropes and expectations of a romance. Xanthippe loves Polyxena for her youth and beauty, using the same language as m/f romances. [Note: also the same tropes used in age-differentiated m/m Greek romances.]

Following the standard romance plot, the two women enjoy their time together initially (Xanthippe reads religious writings to the younger woman while alone together in her bedroom) and a prophetic dream establishes that it is Polyxena’s destiny to receive baptism. Delighted about this, Xanthippe goes to tell Paul, leaving Polyxena vulnerable to abduction by a jilted suitor. This starts a long serious of events following the standard romance plot in which the lovers are separated and experience extreme grief, even to the point of desiring death if they cannot be reunited. Even some of the adventure motifs are standard recurring tropes from the romance genre, such as when Polyxena throws herself overboard from a ship to escape her abductor and is rescued by sailors, or the regular threat of politically powerful men who want access to the “heroine” figure (the part played by Polyxena).

Gorman notes another similarity with the romance genre in how the relationship between the protagonists is framed as one of equality and reciprocity, rather than being expressed in social hierarchies. In the more typical heterosexual novel, this often results in a male protagonist who appears relatively passive and a female protagonist who regularly acts on her own behalf.  In AXP, we see the same mutual affection and desire for reunion. Xanthippe follows the “male” role, remaining at home and taking action toward their reunion primarily via fasting and prayer, while Polyxena is proactive, though regularly at the mercy of the male figures contending for control of her fate.

As in the romance plots, the decisive action toward plot resolution is displaced onto a secondary character whose motives do not involve erotic desire--in this case a friend of the apostle Paul who finally delivers her back to the grieving Xanthippe. Another parallel is in the adventuring character forming secondary attachments during the separation who support her in her goals. In romance novels, this is often a temporary alliance with a desiring male character. In the case of Polyxena, it is a bond with the slave Rebecca who is baptized alongside her by the apostle Andrew and with whom she lives until another abduction creates a secondary rupture--one that the secondary partner laments while the primary partner returns to the original quest.

Another structural parallel is in how the separations and adventures are revealed at the end to be due to divine plan (whether that of pagan gods in the romance texts, or of the Christian god in AXP). What originally appeared to be arbitrary suffering turns out to be deliberate actions by a deity to demonstrate a moral lesson. Though in the case of Xanthippe and Polyxena the lesson is stated simply as “Thus we must be troubled, my daughter, that we may know our defender, Jesus Christ.”

The novel structure typically ends after the reunited protagonists enjoy a happy life together followed by one of them passing on dying wisdom by means of a last kiss. AXP rewrites this formula in a way that reinforces the exclusive and committed bond between the two women, though by short-circuiting the “happy life together” step. When Polyxena returns, Xanthippe joyously runs to meet her, is overcome by “unspeakable joy” and swoons, after which Polyxena “embracing her and caressing her for a long time brought her back to life.” The other characters, including Xanthippe’s husband and the apostle Paul literally stand back to allow focus on this reunion. Xanthippe then offers her dying wisdom, telling Polyxena of what she’s done through fasting and prayer to protect her (despite being told by the apostle that these actions were unnecessary). By shifting the dramatic “dying wisdom” scene that is traditionally assigned to husband and wife instead to Xanthippe and Polyxena, the story completes the framing of the story as that of a romantic and desiring bond between the two women.

The analysis now turns to how this narrative framework is used to “police” the female same-sex relations it depicts, including a consideration of who the primary audience was and for what purpose the story was employed.

Throughout the story, men in authority regularly disrupt the interactions between the two women, with the implication that they cannot be allowed to manage their own sexualities (even if that sexuality is the choice of virginity). Polyxena is, functionally, passed from hand to hand by men with authority over her. The struggle is not her ability to determine her own fate, but a struggle between Christian and non-Christian men for control over her. (It is noted that the original jilted suitor who sets the adventure in motion is never actually punished in the story for his action, but is redeemed by receiving baptism.) The final disruption is Xanthippe’s death, leaving Polyxena to rely on the protection of the apostle Paul to continue in her desired virgin state rather than either enjoying a continuing bond with Xanthippe or being allowed control over her own fate (as was the case for other apocryphal female figures such as Thecla).

The attitudes of the primary characters toward the purpose of the events of the story is contrasted. Xanthippe  believes that she needs to perform severe asceticism in order to (magically) protect the abducted Polyxena. Polyxena believes her trials are due to her having offended God and therefore must be endured to achieve redemption. But the male authorities, including the apostle Paul, proclaim that the misfortunes were all divinely willed and determined and had nothing to do with either of the women’s own actions.

While the divine meddling in Greek romance novels was typically resolved with the implication that the reunion of the lovers was divinely willed and that it restored the desired social structure, the message of AXP appears to be that the abduction and threats against an innocent young woman were, themselves, divinely willed. The idea that the women had any power to redeem their lives or protect themselves is treated as contrary to the “official” male authorities interpretation of divine will. At the same time that  ascetic narratives appeared to encourage women to take charge of their own lives by choosing chaste or virgin lives and Christian baptism, they undermine the idea that women can understand the purposes of those choices, or even that their fates are something they are able to choose.

Another potential reading is that, in producing a female romantic couple at the center of AXP, the narrative is actually “policing” something entirely different from that relationship. The Greek novel structure was also regularly appropriated in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles for narratives pairing up a Christian male apostle and an elite ascetic woman who was previously involved with a non-Christian elite man. This is turned into a pseudo-romantic triangle with the non-Christian man retaliating against the apostle to create the narrative crisis. Within this structure, the original depiction of the restoration of marriage and civic ties being the desired “happy ending”, is replaced with the disruption of marriage and carnal relationships as the desired and approved outcome.

The “romantic triangle” does not involve contention between two equivalent suitors for the woman (one of whom has the benefic of a romantic bond), but rather a contention between the traditional virtues of civic duty (marriage and child bearing) represented by the pagan men and the new ideal of Christian asceticism that rejected traditional civic values.

This doesn’t mean that male and female audiences for these stories might not take different messages away from them. Women might easily envision a Christianity that offered them power over their own destinies and social equality to the apostles, as in the Acts of Paul and Thecla with its bold heroine who crops her hair, puts on men’s clothes, and achieves the right to teach and perform baptisms. Stories such as AXP might be seen in this context as a suppression of such images of female leadership and egalitarian claims. The contrast between Thecla and Polyxena is striking. Thecla eagerly takes on male clothing in order to control her own sexuality, while Polxena does so only at the urging of male protectors. Thecla is shown as receiving Paul’s blessing to go out and preach, while Polyxena willingly commits herself to staying at Pauls’ side for her own protection. Was AXP then part of an indoctrination program to control women’s expectations within the ascetic community, while still encouraging the participation (especially the wealth and prestige) of elite women in those communities?

In looking for evidence of same-sex desire within AXP, the author turns Halperin’s theories about “pre-homosexual” categories applied to men: effeminacy, pederasty, friendship, and passivity. Within this framework, the category of reciprocal love between (male) social equals provides a context for portraying passionate same-sex love that avoids social reproach. The love between Xanthippe and Polyxena could be seen in this same context. But the traditional view of women as envisioned within a subordinate position to a man (father, husband, or religious leader) complicates the matter. In the context of social equality, X&P make a better argument for Boswell’s pantheon of same-sex saintly pairs than his example of Perpetua and Felicitas who inhabited a social hierarchy of mistress and servant.

Several other theoretical approaches to interpreting same-sex relationships in the early Christian world are discussed. Whether or not X&P’s relationship can reasonably be interpreted as erotic, it can easily be seen as a threat to patriarchal structures. If the ideal position for women is in relation to a male authority, then the bond between X&P needed to be disrupted in order for both of them to accept their roles as brides of Christ. There is clear evidence from instructional writings for ascetic communities that authorities were concerned about the potential for female same-sex friendships developing into erotic relationships. Thus stories such as AXP that undermine the idealization of such relationships may have been part of how such concerns were addressed.

Saturday, November 10, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 28b - Interview with Elizabeth Tammi

(Originally aired 2018/11/10 - listen here)

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

In this episode we talk about

  • The mythological roots of Outrun the Wind
  • Balancing the mythic and historic
  • The Theoi Project (Greek mythology resources)
  • Reclaiming Greek mythology for women’s stories
  • The challenge of writing alternating first person voices
  • The experience of selling your first novel in college
  • Elizabeth’s next mythological topic
  • Elizabeth’s tumblr blog about YA literature

Publications mentioned:

More info





  • elizabeth_tammi


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Monday, November 5, 2018 - 08:00

With the help of several online friends (yay twitter!) I tracked down various versions of this text in time to discuss in in my podcast on women loving women in classical Rome, so it only made sense to add it to my occasional series of LHMP entries with primary sources. I can't say that I was happy to find that the evidence in the story for women's same-sex marriage in ancient Egypt was not quite as solid as some authors (like Brooten) imply. But it's still a clear presentation of a romantic and erotic (and possibly matrimonial) relationship depicted in a fictional context by an author within the cultural scope of the Roman empire and presented using language identical to that used for heterosexual relationshps.

I'm amused to find that over-the-top ancient Greek adventure-romances were evidently A Thing. Next week's entry will look at parallels between the plot stucture of Greek romances and an early Christian text "The Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena" which involves a similar string of separations, abductions, rescues, devoted pining, and dramatic reunion.

Unlike Ovid, Iamblichos doesn't seem to have had any doubts that women could not only feel desire for each other but had clear ideas about how to act on it. But this text also points out how easy it is for evidence of women's homoeroticism to be erased across the ages. Photius wrote his summary of the Babyloniaka and skipped over much of the side-story of Berenike with the bare outline: The story of Berenice, daughter of the king of Egypt, of her disgraceful amours, of her intimacy with Mesopotamia. If the character of Mesopotamia hadn't been so essential to the central story of Rhodanes and Sinonis, one imagines that Photius might have eliminated it altogether as part of the unfortunately "immoral" portions of Iamblichos' work.

Wikipedia says that the last known copy of the original text by Iamblichos was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1671...but that the fate of the work hinged on a single copy speaks of a history of neglect and indifference. Mind you, based on the summary that we have, the Babyloniaka may not have been exactly a shining lamp of literature. Perhaps the characterization by Photius that it was a "puerile fiction" has merit. But there's a long history of female erasure based on which texts are considered to have merit. Perhaps we need our "puerile fictions" if that's the only place we can find ourselves reflected.

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Full citation: 

Photius (trans. J.H. Freese). 1920. The Library of Photius (volume 1). The Macmillan Company, New York. - Greek text from De La Rochette, S. Charon. 1812. Mélanges de Critique et de Philologie. D’Hautel, Paris.

Publication summary: 

English translation, with key passages in the original Greek, of Photius' summary of the Babyloniaka of Iamblichos, including the romance and marriage(?) of Berenike, Queen of Egypt, and Mesopotamia.

Primary Source Text: The Babyloniaka of Iamblichos

Brooten 1997, among other sources, refers to “a lost novel by Iamblichos that tells of how Berenike, daughter of the king of Egypt, loved and married a woman named Mesopotamia.” This was an intriguing lead, but it wasn’t until I was working on a podcast about same-sex relations between women in classical Rome that I had the need to track down the original source and identify exactly what it did and didn’t say. For one thing, the name “Mesopotamia” is so obviously a geographic name that I wondered if the “lost novel” might be some sort of allegory of nations rather than a representation of real women’s lives. Furthermore, how exactly was this “love and marriage” presented? Was the language unambiguous? Did it use the same vocabulary that would be used for a heterosexual couple? And if the novel had been “lost” how was it that we knew the contents at all?

Fortunately, we live in the age of online texts, and I have the advantage of friends who live and breathe classical texts as close as my twitter feed. So with the assistance of Maya (who tracked down a cleaned up copy of the OCR’ed English translation, and a parallel text with the original Greek and French translation), Fade for Classical Greek consultation, Irina for general offers of assistance, and various virtual cheerleaders, I was able to put the following together.

Iamblichos (or in the Latinized version, Iamblichus) was a Syrian Greek writer of the 2nd century CE. His best-known work was his Babyloniaka (Babylonian History) which was an epic romance of the lovers Rhodanes and Sinonis and their hair-raising adventures to achieve their happily ever after. A 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia indicates that the original work consisted of 39 books, but today the only surviving version is a summary by Photius, which mentions only 17 volumes. Evidently a copy of the original survived to 1671 when it was destroyed in a fire. One could wish that someone had taken the trouble to copy it, but that’s true of so many works.

Photius was a 9th century Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Among his other endeavors, he was a compiler of Greek texts--not only religious and philosophical writings, but evidently more popular works as well. He does, however, offer his opinion of the moral and literary merit of the material, which raises the question of to what extent he may have edited texts to fit his prejudices. There’s at least a hint that he may have elided many of the details about Berenike and Mesopotamia due to disapproval, but on the other hand, he omits so much of the overall story that this may not have been a pointed choice. Many other classical Greek works are known only through his summaries and due, to later losses, this is true of the Babyloniaka of Iamblichos.

The text included below is an excerpt from a 1920 English translation by J.H. Freese entitled The Library of Photius in 5 volumes, with Iamblichos appearing in volume 1 (fortunately, since this seems to be the volume that has been made available online). Google Books has a cleaned up (though still error-filled) scan available in e-book formats and this can be proofed against a pdf scan of an original copy at (which also has a much messier OCR text). But for my purposes, I wanted to know what words were used in the original Greek (or at least in Photius’s Greek summary of the original Greek) to discuss the “love” and “marriage” between these women. The version I used is from a French website which provides parallel texts in Greek and French translation, taken from an early 19th century publication, and which conveniently separates the various authors Photius covers into individual pages. While I can’t tell if the Greek has been standardized in spelling and diacritics (likely), it presumably represents the original vocabulary. Pause for a moment to wonder at the fact that all these materials are avaialable freely and easily (at least, once you know they exist) on the internet! Truly we live in an age of riches.

The following collated version is Freese’s English translation, with the sections relevant to the story of Berenike and Mesopotamia in italics, and accompanied by the corresponding Greek. Key vocabulary is discussed (in curly braces). Freese’s footnotes are inserted in square brackets in place of the original footnote number. I’ve added some extra paragraph breaks for readability.

It’s best if you read this plot summary envisioning an ancient Greek soap opera. A really really wacky ancient Greek soap opera.

* * *

Read the Dramaticon of Iamblichus [Syrian romance-writer, probably lived about the middle of the second century A.D. The complete work is no longer extant (see Cod. LXXIII).], a narrative of love adventures. The author makes less show of indecencies than Achilles Tatius, but he is more immoral than the Phoenician Heliodorus. Of these three writers, who have all adopted the same subject and have chosen love intrigues as the material for their stories, Heliodorus is more serious and restrained, Iamblichus less so, while Achilles Tatius pushes his obscenity to impudence. The style of Iamblichus is soft and flowing; if there is anything vigorous and sonorous in it, it is less characterized by intensity than by what may be called titillation and nervelessness. Iamblichus is so distinguished by excellence of style and arrangement and the order of the narrative that it is to be regretted that he did not devote his skill and energies to serious subjects instead of to puerile fictions.

The characters of the story are a handsome couple named Rhodanes and Sinonis, united by the tie of mutual love and marriage. Garmus, king of Babylon, having lost his wife, falls in love with Sinonis and is eager to marry her. Sinonis refuses and is bound with chains of gold, while Rhodanes is placed upon the cross by Damas and Sacas, the king's eunuchs. He is taken down through the efforts of Sinonis, and the lovers take to flight, one thus escaping death, the other a hated marriage. Sacas and Damas have their ears and noses cut off and are sent after the fugitives. They take different routes to carry out the search. Rhodanes and Sinonis are nearly surprised by Damas in a meadow. For a fisherman had told him of some shepherds who, being put to the torture, at last show him the meadow where Rhodanes had discovered a treasure, revealed to him by the inscription engraved on a cippus [A monumental pillar or monument generally marking the site of a grave.] surmounted by a lion.

A spectre in the form of a goat becomes enamoured of Sinonis, which obliges the lovers to leave the meadow. Damas finds a garland of flowers dropped by Sinonis and sends it to Garmus as a consolation. In their flight, the lovers come across an old woman at the door of a hut; they hide themselves in a cave, thirty stades long and open at both ends, the mouth of which is concealed by thick bushes. Damas comes up with his companions, and questions the old woman, who is terrified by the sight of the naked sword. The horses on which Rhodanes and Sinonis had ridden are captured. The soldiers surround their hiding-place; the brazen shield of one of those who were keeping watch is broken on the cave; the hollowness of the echo discloses the whereabouts of the fugitives; the soldiers begin to dig, and Damas's shouts reach the ears of those within. They retire farther into the cave and make their way to the second opening.

Here a swarm of wild bees attacks the diggers, drops of honey falling also upon the fugitives. The bees as well as the honey are infected with poison from their having eaten certain venomous reptiles, so that the diggers whom they sting either lose a limb or die. Rhodanes and his companion, hard pressed by hunger, lick up some drops of the honey, are seized with colic, and fall on the road as if dead. The soldiers, worn out by the attack of the bees, take to flight but renew the pursuit of the lovers. Seeing Rhodanes and Sinonis prostrate in the road, they pass them by, taking them for two dead strangers. Sinonis, while in the cave, had cut her hair, and made a rope with it to draw water; Damas finds it and sends it to Garmus, as an earnest of the speedy capture of the fugitives. The soldiers who passed by where Rhodanes and Sinonis were lying in the road pay respect to them as if they were really dead, according to the custom of the country; some cover them with their tunics, others throw over them anything they have at hand, even pieces of bread and meat, and then go their way.

The lovers recover from the drowsiness caused by the honey; Rhodanes had been roused by some crows quarrelling over some pieces of meat, and woke Sinonis. Getting up, they go in the opposite direction to the soldiers, so as to be less easily recognized. They meet two asses and mount them, having first loaded them with part of what the soldiers, thinking them dead, had thrown over them, and which the lovers had carried away. They stop at an inn, but soon leave it for another, in the neighbourhood of a full market-place. Two brothers have died and they are accused of their murder, but acquitted. The elder of the two brothers, who had poisoned the younger and who had accused them, poisons himself, thereby proving their innocence. Rhodanes gets possession of the poison without being seen.

They put up at the house of a brigand who robbed passers-by and ate them. Soldiers sent by Damas capture the brigand and set fire to his house; Rhodanes and Sinonis, enveloped by the flames, with great difficulty escape with their lives, after they have killed the asses and thrown them on the fire to make a bridge across. The soldiers who fired the house, meeting them during the night, ask them who they are. "We are the ghosts of those murdered by the brigands," they reply. Their thin, pale countenances, the weakness of their voice, persuade the soldiers that they are speaking the truth, whereat they are greatly alarmed.

The lovers resume their flight, and meeting a young girl who is being carried to the grave, join the throng of spectators. An old Chaldaean comes up and stops the funeral, saying that the girl is still alive, and so it turns out to be. He predicts to Rhodanes and Sinonis that they will attain royal rank. The girl's grave is left empty, and a great part of the robes which were to be burnt and of the food and drink is left behind. Rhodanes and Sinonis make a good meal, take some of the clothes and sleep in the grave.

In the morning, the soldiers who had fired the house find they have been deceived, and set out in pursuit of Rhodanes and Sinonis, imagining that they are accomplices of the brigand. Having traced them as far as the grave and seeing them lying there motionless, overcome by wine and sleep, they imagine they are looking on corpses and so leave them, although they hesitated since their footsteps guided them thither. [Or, "being uncertain whether their footsteps led thither,”] Rhodanes and Sinonis leave the grave and cross the river, the waters of which are sweet and clear and reserved for the king of Babylon alone to drink.

Sinonis, when trying to sell the clothes she has taken, is arrested for sacrilege and brought before Soraechus, the son of Soraechus the tax-gatherer and named the Just. Owing to her beauty, he is minded to send her to king Garmus; whereupon Rhodanes and Sinonis mix a dose of poison, considering death preferable to the sight of this king. Their intention is revealed by a female slave to Soraechus, who secretly empties the cup containing the deadly potion and fills it with a sleeping draught; after they have drunk it and are in a deep sleep they are placed in a carriage to be taken to the king.

A little way from Babylon, Rhodanes is frightened by a dream and cries out; this wakes Sinonis, who takes up a sword and wounds herself in the breast. Soraechus wants to know their history, and the lovers having received a solemn promise from him, tell him everything. He sets them at liberty and shows them a temple of Aphrodite on a little island, where Sinonis can be healed of her wound.

* * *

By way of digression the author relates the history of the temple and the little island, which is formed by the surrounding waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. The priestess of Aphrodite had three children, Euphrates, Tigris, and Mesopotamia, the last, who was born ugly, being changed into a woman so beautiful that three suitors quarrelled for her hand. Bochorus, the most famous judge of the time, was chosen to decide their claims, and the three rivals pleaded their cause. Now Mesopotamia had given one of them the cup from which she drank, had crowned the second with a garland of flowers from her own head, and had kissed the third. Bochorus decided that she belonged to the one whom she had kissed, but this decision only embittered the quarrel, which ended in the death of the rivals by one another's hands.

{There is no discussion here of Mesopotamia’s relationship with Berenike, so we don’t know whether they have already met and fallen in love. I confess that my writer’s imagination has spun off a previous meeting and kiss between the two women, such that Mesopotamia eagerly agrees that she belongs to “the one whom she had kissed” envisioning Berenike. But I’ll save that for if I ever decide to write my own version.}

* * *

Ὡς ἐν παρεκβολῇ δὲ διηγεῖται καὶ τὰ περὶ τοῦ ἱεροῦ καὶ τῆς νησῖδος, καὶ ὅτι ὁ Εὐφράτης καὶ ὁ Τίγρις περιρρέοντες αὐτὴν ποιοῦσι νησῖδα, καὶ ὅτι ἡ τῆς ἐνταῦθα Ἀφροδίτης ἱέρεια τρεῖς ἔσχε παῖδας, Εὐφράτην καὶ Τίγριν καὶ Μεσοποταμίαν, αἰσχρὰν τὴν ὄψιν ἀπὸ γενέσεως, ὑπὸ δὲ τῆς Ἀφροδίτης εἰς κάλλος μετασκευασθεῖσαν. Δι´ ἣν καὶ ἔρις τριῶν ἐραστῶν γίνεται, καὶ κρίσις ἐπ´ αὐτούς. Βόροχος ἢ Βόχορος ὁ κρίνων ἦν, κριτῶν τῶν κατ´ ἐκείνους καιροὺς ἄριστος. Ἐκρίνοντο δὲ καὶ ἤριζον οἱ τρεῖς, ὅτι τῷ μὲν ἡ Μεσοποταμία τὴν φιάλην ἐξ ἧς ἔπιεν ἔδωκε, τῷ δὲ τὸν ἀπὸ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἐξ ἀνθέων ἀφελομένη στέφανον περιέθηκε, τὸν δὲ ἐφίλησε. Καὶ τοῦ φιληθέντος κρίσει νικήσαντος οὐδὲν ἔλαττον αὐτοῖς ἡ ἔρις ἤκμαζεν, ἕως ἀλλήλους ἀνεῖλον ἐρίζοντες.

* * *

In another digression the author gives details of the temple of Aphrodite. The women who visit it are obliged to reveal in public the dreams they have had in the temple; this leads to minute details of Pharnuchus, Pharsiris and Tanais, from whom the river is named. Pharsiris and Tanais initiated those who dwelt on the banks of the river into the mysteries of Aphrodite. Tigris died in the little island just mentioned, after having eaten of some roses in the buds of which, not yet full blown, lurked a poisonous little beetle. His mother believed she had made him a demi-god by her enchantments.

Iamblichus then describes different kinds of enchantments —by locusts, lions and mice. According to him, the last is the oldest, the mysteries being called after the name of these animals. [Deriving μυστήριον [mysterion] from μῦσ [mys].] There are also enchantments by hail, snakes, necromancy and ventriloquism, the ventriloquist being called by the Greeks Eurycles, and by the Babylonians Sacchuras. The author calls himself a Babylonian and says that, after having learnt the art of magic, he devoted himself to the study of the Greek arts and sciences. He flourished in the reign of Soaemus, son of Achaemenides the Arsacid, who occupied the throne of his fathers, and was afterwards a Roman senator and consul, and king of Greater Armenia. [A.D. 164.] At this time Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor. When Aurelius sent Verus, his adopted brother and son-in-law and colleague in the empire, to make war against Vologaesus [Or Vologases III (148-190).] the Parthian king, Iamblichus predicted the beginning, the course, and end of the war. He also tells how Vologaesus fled over the Euphrates and Tigris, and how the kingdom of Parthia became a Roman province.

Tigris and Euphrates, the children of the priestess, were very like each other, and Rhodanes was like both. Tigris, as has been mentioned, had been poisoned by eating roses, and when Rhodanes crosses over to the island with Sinonis, the mother of Tigris, when she sets eyes on Rhodanes, declares that her son has come back to life, accompanied by Kore. [Reading Κόρην with capital K. Kore or Persephone, daughter of Demeter (Ceres), wife of Pluto, and queen of the lower world. If κόρην be read, we must translate "and bids her daughter follow him.”] Rhodanes falls in with the deception, highly amused at the credulity of the islanders.

Damas is informed of what has happened to Rhodanes and Sinonis and of what Soraechus has done for them, his informant being the physician whom Soraechus had secretly sent to attend to Sinonis's wound. Soraechus is arrested and taken to Garmus, and at the same time the informer is sent with a letter to the priest of Aphrodite, ordering him to seize Rhodanes and Sinonis. The physician, in order to cross the river, hangs himself round the neck of a camel in the usual manner, having first deposited the letter in the animal's right ear. He is drowned in the river, the camel alone reaches the island, and Rhodanes and Sinonis, taking Damas's letter out of its ear, become aware of the danger that threatens them.

They accordingly take to flight, and on the way meet Soraechus, who is being taken to Garmus, and put up at the same inn. During the night Rhodanes bribes certain persons to slay the guards of Soraechus, who takes to flight with the lovers, being thus rewarded for his previous kindness.

* * *

Damas arrests the priest of Aphrodite and questions him about Sinonis; the old man is condemned to change his ministry for the office of executioner; the manners and customs relating to this office. Euphrates, whom the priest his father takes for Rhodanes and calls him by this name, is arrested, and his sister Mesopotamia takes to flight. Euphrates is taken before Sacas and questioned about Sinonis, being taken for Rhodanes and examined as such. Sacas sends a messenger to Garmus to inform him that Rhodanes is captured and that Sinonis soon will be. For Euphrates, when questioned in the name of Rhodanes, being obliged to call his sister Mesopotamia by the name of Sinonis, declares that Sinonis fled when she saw him arrested.

{Once again, no reference to the relationship between Mesopotamia and Berenike.}

* * *

Συλλαμβάνει Δάμας τὸν τῆς Ἀφροδίτης ἱερέα, καὶ ἀνακρίνεται περὶ Σινωνίδος, καὶ τέλος κατακρίνεται δήμιος γενέσθαι ἀντὶ ἱερέως ὁ πρεσβύτης. Καὶ τὰ περὶ τὸν δήμιον ἔθη καὶ νόμιμα. Συλλαμβάνεται Εὐφράτης, ὅτι ὁ πατὴρ καὶ ἱερεύς, ὡς Ῥοδάνην αὐτὸν ὑπολαβών, οὕτως ἐπεκάλει· καὶ φεύγει Μεσοποταμία ἡ ἀδελφή. Καὶ πρὸς τὸν Σάκαν ἀπάγεται Εὐφράτης, καὶ ἀνακρίνεται περὶ Σινωνίδος· ὡς γὰρ Ῥοδάνης ἠτάζετο. Ἀποστέλλει Σάκας πρὸς Γάρμον ὅτι Ῥοδάνης συνείληπται καὶ Σινωνὶς συλληφθήσεται· ὁ γὰρ Εὐφράτης, ὡς Ῥοδάνης κρινόμενος ἔφη, τὴν Σινωνίδα συλλαμβανομένου αὐτοῦ πεφευγέναι, Σινωνίδα καλεῖν κἀκεῖνος ἐκβιαζόμενος τὴν ἀδελφὴν Μεσοποταμίαν.

* * *

The fugitives Rhodanes, Sinonis and Soraechus, put up at the house of a farm-labourer. He has a beautiful daughter, who has just lost her husband, and out of her affection for him has cut her hair. She is sent to a goldsmith to sell the golden chain which Sinonis had brought from her former prison. The goldsmith, seeing the beauty of the young woman, and recognizing part of the chain which he happened to have made himself, and noticing that she has her hair cut, suspects that she is Sinonis. He accordingly informs Damas and has the labourer's daughter secretly watched. Suspecting what is afoot, she takes refuge in an empty house.

The story of the young girl named Trophime, of the slave who was both her lover and murderer, of the golden ornaments, of the lawless conduct of the slave, of his suicide, of the blood that spirted over the labourer's daughter when the murderer was committing suicide, of the fear and flight of the young woman, of the terror and flight of those who were keeping watch on her, of the young woman's return to her father, of the story of her adventures, of the departure of Rhodanes, and of the letter sent by the goldsmith to inform Damas that Sinonis has been found. To confirm his letter, he sends the chain which he has bought, and mentions the other suspicious circumstances connected with the labourer's daughter.

Rhodanes, at the moment of leaving, kisses the labourer's daughter. Sinonis is furiously jealous; at first she had only suspected this kiss, but her suspicions were confirmed when she wiped off the marks of blood with which his lips were stained. Sinonis makes up her mind to kill the young woman and hastens back like a madwoman, followed by Soraechus, who is unable to calm her passionate fury.

They put up at the house of a wealthy man of dissolute habits, named Setapus, who falls in love with Sinonis and tries to seduce her. She pretends to return his love and, at night, when Setapus is intoxicated, stabs him with a sword, orders the servants to open the door, leaves Soraechus, who is ignorant of what has happened, and sets out in haste to find the labourer's daughter.

Soraechus, when he hears of her departure, starts in pursuit, having hired some of the slaves of Setapus to accompany him, so as to prevent the murder of the labourer's daughter. He overtakes her, makes her get into a carriage which had been prepared beforehand, and turns back with her. On their return, the servants of Setapus, who had found their dead master, filled with rage rush upon them, seize Sinonis, bind her, and take her to Garmus to be punished as a murderess. Soraechus, having sprinkled his head with dust, and rent his cloak, announces the sad news to Rhodanes, who would have killed himself, but is prevented by Soraechus.

Garmus, having received the letters from Sacas and the goldsmith, informing him of the capture of Rhodanes and Sinonis, rejoices greatly, offers sacrifice to the gods, orders preparations to be made for the marriage, and issues a decree that all prisoners should be unbound and set free. Sinonis is accordingly released from her bonds by the servants of Setapus.

Garmus orders Damas to be put to death and he is handed over to the priest whom he himself had deprived of his priesthood and made executioner. Garmus was wroth with Damas, because he had allowed others to have the honour of arresting the supposed Rhodanes and Sinonis. Damas is succeeded in his office by his brother Monasus.

* * *

The story of Berenice, daughter of the king of Egypt, of her disgraceful amours, of her intimacy with Mesopotamia, who was afterwards seized by Sacas and, as Sinonis, sent to Garmus with her brother Euphrates. Garmus, hearing from the goldsmith that Sinonis has escaped, orders him to be put to death, and the guards, who had been deputed to watch the pretended Sinonis and to bring her to him, to be buried alive with their women and children.

{So here we finally bring Berenike into the story, with the clear implication that she and Mesopotamia already had a thing going on much earlier in the story.}

* * *

Διάληψις περὶ Βερενίκης, ἥτις ἦν θυγάτηρ τοῦ βασιλέως Αἰγυπτίων, καὶ τῶν ἀγρίων αὐτῆς καὶ ἐκθέσμων ἐρώτων· καὶ ὅπως Μεσοποταμίᾳ τε συνεγίνετο, καὶ ὡς ὕστερον ὑπὸ Σάκα συνελήφθη Μεσοποταμία, καὶ πρὸς Γάρμον ἅμα τῷ ἀδελφῷ Εὐφράτῃ ἀπάγεται. Γράμμα δεξάμενος Γάρμος παρὰ τοῦ χρυσοχόου ὡς Σινωνὶς διαπέφευγε, προστάσσει ἐκεῖνόν τε ἀναιρεθῆναι καὶ τοὺς ἐπὶ φυλακῇ ταύτης καὶ ἀγωγῇ σταλέντας αὐταῖς γυναιξὶ καὶ τέκνοις ζῶντας κατορυχθῆναι.

{ἀγρίων is from a root meaning “wild, fierce, savage, uncivilized” but used here as a noun, so perhaps something like “wild/uncivilized actions”? In ἐκθέσμων ἐρώτων the second word is easily recognizable as from the root “eros” (desire, erotic love). The first word, ἐκθέσμων, appears to be derived from θέσμός “law, rule, order”, so with that prefix, “unlawful” or perhaps “unnatural”. In the following phrase, συνεγίνετο with the dative can mean “to have intercourse with." Also “to be acquainted with” but this is less likely in the near vicinity of ἐρώτων! In any event, taken all together we get a clear description of an erotic relatoinship and activities.}

* * *

An Hyrcanian dog, belonging to Rhodanes, finds in the ill-omened inn the bodies of the unhappy girl and of the slave, her infatuated lover and murderer. It has already devoured the body of the slave and half eaten that of the young girl, when the father of Sinonis comes on the scene. Recognizing the dog as belonging to Rhodanes and seeing the half-eaten body of the girl, he first kills the dog as a sacrifice to Sinonis and then hangs himself, having first buried the remains of the girl and written on her tomb with the blood of the dog, "Here lies the beautiful Sinonis."

Meanwhile Rhodanes and Soraechus come up, see the dog lying dead by the tomb, Sinonis's father hanging by a rope, and the epitaph written on the tomb. Rhodanes stabs himself and adds to the epitaph on Sinonis the words: "and the handsome Rhodanes," written in his own blood. Soraechus puts his head in the noose, and Rhodanes is preparing to give himself the death blow, when the labourer's daughter rushes in, shouting loudly, "Rhodanes, she who lies here is not Sinonis." She runs and cuts the rope by which Soraechus is hanging, and snatches the dagger from the hand of Rhodanes. At last she manages to convince them by relating the story of the unhappy girl, and of the buried treasure, which she had come to carry off.

Meanwhile Sinonis, released from her bonds, hastens to the labourer's house, still furious with his daughter. Unable to find her, she asks her father where she is, and on his telling her the way she has taken, she immediately sets out in pursuit with drawn sword. At the sight of Rhodanes lying on the ground and her rival sitting alone by his side, endeavouring to staunch the wound in his breast (Soraechus having gone to fetch a physician) her rage and jealousy know no bounds and she rushes upon the young woman. But Rhodanes, forgetting his wound at the sight of her violence, musters up strength to throw himself in front of Sinonis and hold her back, at the same time snatching the sword from her hands. Sinonis, transported with rage, rushes out of the inn and running like a madwoman shouts to Rhodanes: "I invite you to-day to Garmus's wedding." Soraechus, on his return, hearing what has taken place, consoles Rhodanes, and after his wound has been dressed, the labourer's daughter is sent back with money to her father.

{As a comparative text to the following, I note that Sinonis's taunt "I invite you to-day to Garmus's wedding" renders the following Greek: Καλῶ σε σήμερον εἰς τοὺς Γάρμου γάμους. This uses the same word "γάμους" as is used for the union between Berenice and Mesopotamia in the next passage.}

* * *

Euphrates and Mesopotamia, the supposed Rhodanes and Sinonis, together with Soraechus and the real Rhodanes are taken before Garmus. Garmus, seeing that Mesopotamia is not Sinonis, delivers her to Zobaras with orders to cut off her head on the banks of the Euphrates, to prevent any one else in future taking the name of Sinonis. But Zobaras, who has already drunk at the fountain of love, is smitten with Mesopotamia; he spares her life and sends her back to Berenice, who had become queen of Egypt after her father's death, and from whom she had been taken. [By Sacas (p. 174).] Berenice is again united to Mesopotamia, on whose account Garmus threatens war.

Euphrates is handed over to his father, now executioner, by whom he is recognized, and his life is spared. He takes the place of his father, whose hands are not soiled with human blood, and afterwards, disguised as the daughter of the executioner, escapes from the prison and regains his freedom.

{This gives us a few more clues to the timeline of Berenike and Mesopotamia. I’ll try to put the whole known timeline for them together at the end.}

* * *

Ἄγεται πρὸς Γάρμον Εὐφράτης ὡς Ῥοδάνης, καὶ ὡς Σινωνὶς Μεσοποταμία· ἄγεται καὶ Σόραιχος καὶ ὁ ἀληθὴς Ῥοδάνης. Καὶ διαγνοὺς ὁ Γάρμος μὴ εἶναι Σινωνίδα τὴν Μεσοποταμίαν, δίδωσι Ζοβάρᾳ παρὰ ποταμὸν Εὐφράτην καρατομῆσαι ἵνα μή, φησί, καὶ ἑτέρα τις τοῦ τῆς Σινωνίδος ἐπιβατεύσῃ ὀνόματος. Ὁ δὲ Ζοβάρας ἀπὸ πηγῆς ἐρωτικῆς πιὼν καὶ τῷ Μεσοποταμίας ἔρωτι σχεθείς, σῴζει τε ταύτην καὶ πρὸς Βερενίκην Αἰγυπτίων ἤδη, ἅτε τοῦ πατρὸς τελευτήσαντος βασιλεύουσαν, ἐξ ἧς ἦν καὶ ἀφελόμενος, ἄγει· καὶ γάμους Μεσοποταμίας ἡ Βερενίκη ποιεῖται, καὶ πόλεμος δι´ αὐτὴν Γάρμῳ καὶ Βερενίκῃ διαπειλεῖται.

Εὐφράτης δὲ παραδίδοται τῷ πατρὶ ὡς δημίῳ καὶ ἀναγνωσθεὶς σῴζεται, καὶ πληροῖ μὲν αὐτὸς τὰ τοῦ πατρὸς ἔργα, ὁ δὲ πατὴρ οὐ μιαίνεται τοῖς ἀνθρώπων αἵμασιν· ὕστερον δέ, ὡς τοῦ δημίου κόρη, ἐξέρχεται τοῦ οἰκήματος καὶ διασῴζεται.

{My classical Greek consultant notes with regard to  γάμους (from γάμος “marriage” in its basic sense) that “in later Greek particularly, [it] gets an extended meaning that makes it more of a euphemism for sex, including illicit sex; when it's in the plural, it's even more likely to mean prostitution, rape, or, as my dictionary delicately puts it, ‘unlawful wedlock’. So it's more along the lines of ‘Berenice has illicit sex with Mestopotamia’.” This is a bit less unambiguous than Brooten implies. We still have a sexual context, but less clearly an assertion of marriage in the sense of a formal contract. But on the other hand, the exact same word was used for the expected union between Sinonis and King Garmus. Perhaps Freese’s “united to” is at an appropriate level of ambiguity, but if so, it is an ambiguity that applies to the heterosexual relationships in the text as well. Even as a euphemism, the word clearly evokes the concept of marriage. It may be one of those cases where, if you accept the concept of marriage between women, then you can understand it as referring to a marriage between two women, whereas if you consider marriage between woman an impossibility or absurdity, you’re left interpreting it in a purely sexual sense.}

* * *

Such was the state of affairs when Soraechus is condemned to be crucified. The place of execution appointed was the meadow with the fountain where Rhodanes and Sinonis had first rested during their flight, where Rhodanes had discovered the hidden treasure of which he informs Soraechus when the latter is being led away to execution. A body of Alans, indignant at not receiving their pay from Garmus, who had halted at the place where Soraechus was to be executed, drive away the guards of Soraechus and set him free. Soraechus, having found the treasure of which he had been told, and having cleverly removed it from its hiding-place, persuades the Alans that he has learnt this and other things from the gods. Having gradually gained their confidence, he induces them to elect him their king, makes war upon Garmus and defeats him. But this happened later.

While Soraechus is on his way to execution, Garmus, crowned with garlands and dancing, orders Rhodanes to be taken to the place where he was to have been executed before, and to be placed upon the cross. While Garmus, drunk with wine and dancing round the cross with the fluteplayers, abandons himself to joy and revelry, he receives a letter from Sacas, informing him that Sinonis has just married the young king of Syria. Rhodanes is rejoiced, Garmus at first wants to kill himself, but, changing his mind, makes the unwilling Rhodanes, who would have preferred death, come down from the cross. Garmus then appoints him to the command of an army which he decides to send against the king of Syria, so as to pit the lover against the rival.

Rhodanes is treacherously received by the army in a friendly manner, Garmus having privately instructed the generals under Rhodanes that, if their army is victorious and Sinonis is captured, they are to put Rhodanes to death. Rhodanes gains the victory, recovers Sinonis, and becomes king of Babylon, as a swallow had foretold. For when Garmus in person came to see Rhodanes set out on the expedition, an eagle and a kite pursued this swallow, which escaped the eagle but became the prey of the kite. Such is the contents of the sixteen books.

* * *

So here’s a brief summary of the events from the point of view of Mesopotamia and Berenike, as best I can work it out. All the other stories have been stripped down to only the context necessary for this part.

Mesopotamia is the daughter of a priest and priestess of Aphrodite, living on an island between the Euphrates and Tigris. She has two brothers, named after the rivers, and she herself is named for the land between those rivers (meso “middle” potamos “river”). Mesopotamia was born ugly but was changed (by unspecified means) into a beautiful woman. The two brothers closely resemble each other and also resemble Rhodanes, enough that they can all be mistaken for each other. Mesopotamia (in her beautiful version) so closely resembles Sinones that they too can be mistaken for each other.

At some point in the past, Tigris has died from eating poisoned roses.

Berenike is the daughter of the king of Egypt and evidently is known for “disgraceful amours” and at some point in here has an erotic relationship with Mesopotamia. It is not specified whether that relationship is before or after the following episode.

Mesopotamia had three suitors arguing over the right to marry her. At some point in this triple courtship, she gives one of them a cup from which she drank, crowned one of them with a garland of flowers taken from her own head, and kissed the third. The famous judge, Bochorus, judged that she belonged to the one she’d kissed, but the three suitors contested the decision and fought until all three were dead.

There is an implication that at the time of the following events, Mesopotamia and Berenike are together, so presumably both are present on the island where the temple of Aphrodite is.

Rhodanes and Sinonis are sent to the temple of Aphrodite to recover from the wounds of their most recent adventure and the late Tigris’s mother believes Rhodanes is her son come back to life, accompanied by Kore (Persephone) from the land of the dead. Rhodanes is amused and goes along with the deception.

The physician who attended previously to Rhodanes’ wounds betrays his location to Damas, the servant of King Garmus, and then is sent to the priest of Aphrodite with a message ordering him to seize Rhodanes and Sinonis, but the physician drowns crossing to the island and his message falls into the hands of Rhodanes and Sinonis, giving them warning and they flee the island.

Damas arrives at the island only to learn that his instruction to the priest of Aphrodite has not been carried out and he arrests the priest. Now the visual confusion between the various characters really comes into play. The priest calls his own son Euphrates by the name of the fugitive Rhodanes, resulting in the arrest of Euphrates (in place of Rhodanes). Seeing this, Mesopotamia takes flight. When Euphrates (mistaken for Rhodanes) is interrogated about the whereabouts of Sinonis, he says that the fleeing Mesopotamia was actually Sinonis, fleeing when she saw Damas arrive.

There is some confusion over exactly when and by whom Mesopotamia (taken for Sinonis) is captured and sent as a prisoner to King Garmus, along with Euphrates (taken for Rhodanes). It’s said that Damas arrested Euphrates/Rhodanes, but then it’s said that Sacas (another servant of King Garmus) was responsible for seizing Mesopotamia/Sinonis. It doesn’t much matter. On receiving news of the capture of (the false) Sinonis and Rhodanes, King Garmus celebrates by releasing all his prisoners, including the true Sinonis.

Euphrates (taken for Rhodanes) and Mesopotamia (taken for Sinonis) as well as the real Rhodanes are all taken before King Garmus where Garmus recognizes that Mesopotamia is not actually Sinonis and orders her to be killed for “impersonating” her. But her executioner falls in love with Mesopotamia, spares her life, and sends her back to Berenike, who in the mean time has become queen of Egypt at her father’s death. Berenike and Mesopotamia are married, though King Garmus is still mad about something to do with Mesopotamia and threatens war over it (presumably against Egypt?).

The embedded family saga is concluded when Euphrates is handed over for execution only to discover that the executioner is his own father (the former priest of Aphrodite) who spares his life. Euphrates takes his father’s place and later escapes the prison disguised as “the daughter of the executioner.” (would this be “disguised as his own sister”? Unclear.)

So, all in all, is this a text that supports the idea that marriage between women was a normal, accepted event associated with Egypt in the 2nd century CE (when Iamblichos was writing)? I’d have to judge that as “not proven.” The Babyloniaka is clearly a fantastic story of improbable events, not even a pseudo-history. But conversely, a female same-sex relationship in included in the story as an unremarkable event, described with the same word "γάμους" as is used for hterosexual relatoinships. Photius, at least, clearly disapproves of the women's relationship and recall that he explicitly refers to Iamblichos’ text as “immoral.” So we can’t rely on Photius as reflecting the original author’s position. Further, when you consider how rare it is for fictional texts to introduce the idea of same-sex romance at all, then it seems meaningful that Iamblichos included this element in a context where there seems to be no direct motivation for it. (Unlike, for example, Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, where the same-sex element is the whole point of the story.) Brooten notes other texts that associate same-sex romance or marriage with Egypt in the classical era, though I think all of them have some amibiguity.

Even the most conservative reading of this text is that the 2nd century audience for the Babyloniaka would not have considered a romantic relationship--and perhaps even marriage--between a fictional Egyptian queen and a Babylonian woman to be an event that needed special pleading. The text clearly calls their relationship “erotic” in the sexual sense and uses the word gamos which at the very least evokes the concept (if not with certainty the legal status) of marriage, in parallel with how heterosexual unions are described. Within the context of the Project, we can consider this as a motif that women of the 2nd century within the Greco-Roman cultural sphere could reasonably have been aware of and used as a way to frame their own desires. The most generous reading is that marriage between women may have been an ordinary event in Egypt that has been largely erased from the historic record by later Christian writers and the prevailing misogyny of both pagan and Christian Roman culture. This, I think, goes beyond what this specific text can be considered to establish.

But I think someday I will write my own version of their story.

Time period: 
Event / person: 
Saturday, November 3, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 28a - On the Shelf for November 2018 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2018/11/03 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2018.

November? Wait, how did that happen? It feels like the end of the year has been galloping down on me. With an out of town trip every month. I just got back from going to the Sirens Conference on women in fantasy literature. That is, I will have just gotten back from it when this airs. At the time I’m recording, I haven’t gone yet and since this is my first time attending Sirens I have no idea what it will be like. I’m always a bit anxious going to an event for the first time because I worry about not knowing the unwritten rules, or trying to socialize when everyone else already knows each other. Sometimes I fit right in at new events and sometimes I stand on the sidelines trying to work out what went wrong. I’ll keep my fingers crossed on this one because I’ve heard great things. Of course that will only make it worse if I don’t fit in.

I don’t have any similar worries about Chessiecon in Baltimore, which I’ll be attending later this month. I’ve been going to that convention in one form or another for over 30 years and it’s sort of like going to a family reunion. I may even read something from Floodtide my current novel project.

Speaking of writing, are people working on stories to submit for next year’s fiction series? Keep in mind that we’ll be open for submissions in January and the end of the year will come faster than you think. Like this year’s series, we want short stories with historical settings featuring queer women. Check out the submission guidelines on the website for more details.

Publications on the Blog

In October, the blog covered several publications focusing on sexuality in classical Rome, leading up to the essay topic at the end of the month. This month’s publications will go back to more of a mixed bag. I don’t have any new book-shopping treasures, but I do want to talk about a great resource for those who can wangle access. As long-time listeners and readers may know, I periodically go off the the library at the University of California in Berkeley to photocopy journal articles for the project. Often I’m doing something of a shotgun approach where I take a long list of publications and run through the call numbers in the order of library location and simply copy the articles that are on the shelf. On the shelf, get it?

But I gradually accumulate a list of publications that the library has in electronic format rather than hard copy. So last month I decided to tackle some of those and reminded myself of the joys of JSTOR, an electronic journal subscription service. Mostly you have to have some sort of academic connection to have a JSTOR account, but if the library has an account, it’s possible to download individual files for offline use. So I pulled up the first article I wanted to use...and had a bit of a “Doh!” moment when it occurred to me that I could have been using the system even for all the journal articles the library has in paper form, rather than taking the trouble to photocopy them. And then I proceeded to review the entire run of issues of the Journal of the History of Sexuality, which left me with 32 articles to cover. I don’t feel inclined to spend the next 8 months on nothing but this one journal, but expect to see it filling in the corners of the schedule for a while.

Author Guest

Last month’s focus on the classical world leads nicely into this month’s author guest, Elizabeth Tammi, who will join us to talk about her debut novel Outrun the Wind, set in an ancient Greece that balances between history and myth. Following that, this month’s Book Appreciation show will be me talking about three books that ask the reader to step a little outside their comfort zone in content and format.


I was thinking about what topic to promise for the November essay, and decided I wanted to do another biographical sketch. So this time I’ll be talking about 18th century sculptor Anne Damer, who may or may not have had sexual relations with women, but was accused of doing so, in part due to stepping outside the bounds of appropriate female behavior. As I record this, I’m reading Emma Donoghue’s fictionalized biography of her, Life Mask, which gave me the inspiration for the choice.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Last month I whined a little about how few historicals we seemed to be seeing from the major lesbian publishers these days. That trend hasn’t changed this month, but lots of other publishers are stepping in and I have 10 books to talk about this month. Only one of them is a straight-forward historical story set in a single era with no fantastic elements and focusing only on a relationship between women who are the primary characters. That’s not to say that the other books aren’t wonderful books, only that it says something about the state of the market.

I have one October publication to catch up on, and in fact it’s a release of a novelette that was previously published as part on an anthology. “Penhallow Amid Passing Things” by Iona Datt Sharma originally appeared in the fantasy anthology The Underwater Ballroom Society. The author has released it separately as a self-published work. Fans of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances may recognize the world of smugglers depicted here, though not the touch of magic overlaid on it. Here’s the blurb:

Magic, in common with all things, is passing from this world. In a coastal village in eighteenth-century Cornwall, Penhallow -- an honourable smuggler par excellence -- has more pressing problems. One of her boys has just been hauled up before the magistrates. A mysterious King's messenger has arrived from London. Something nasty -- and possibly magical -- is afoot in the smugglers' caves beneath water. And then there's Trevelyan, the town's austere, beautiful Revenue officer...

The debut novel of this month’s author guest, Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi (from Flux/North Star Editions) takes up the story of the Greek heroine Atalanta. Here’s the blurb:

The Huntresses of Artemis must obey two rules: never disobey the goddess, and never fall in love. After being rescued from a harrowing life as an Oracle of Delphi, Kahina is glad to be a part of the Hunt; living among a group of female warriors gives her a chance to reclaim her strength. But when a routine mission goes awry, Kahina breaks the first rule in order to save the legendary huntress Atalanta. To earn back Artemis’s favor, Kahina must complete a dangerous task in the kingdom of Arkadia—where the king’s daughter is revealed to be none other than Atalanta. Still reeling from her disastrous quest and her father’s insistence on marriage, Atalanta isn’t sure what to make of Kahina. As her connection to Atalanta deepens, Kahina finds herself in danger of breaking Artemis’s second rule. She helps Atalanta devise a dangerous game to avoid marriage, and word spreads throughout Greece, attracting suitors to go up against Atalanta in a race for her hand. But when the men responsible for both the girls’ dark pasts arrive, the game turns deadly.

The book that most closely fits the paradigm of lesbian historical fiction this month is Wild Fields by Purple Hazel (from Torrid Books). From the context it looks like this one is on the erotic side, if that influences your interest. Here’s the blurb:

Ludmilla is a young farmer's daughter living in 16th century Russia. Motherless since age three, and with five older brothers constantly taunting her about her gender, Ludmilla sheds her identity as a girl by age thirteen. She dresses like a man, walks like a man, and smells a lot like one too. Then one day, she goes into town and sees the most beautiful girl she's ever laid eyes upon. It is Tatyana, daughter to the local innkeeper, who has practically grown up working there. The lovely brunette has become inured to the fact she might very well turn into an old maid some day running the family business. But when Ludmilla enters her tavern what happens next will change both their lives forever. Ludmilla is everything Tatyana needs in her life. She is the best friend Tatyana never had growing up, and the "boyfriend" she thought she'd never find.

Next we have a non-fiction work, Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist by Angela Steidele, translated by Katy Derbyshire (from Serpent's Tail). The book’s description sounds like the author is framing Lister as more of an adventurer than her diaries suggest. It’s also interesting that they chose the nickname “Gentleman Jack” for the title since Lister herself had a negative reaction to it. Here’s how the book describes her:

Anne Lister was a Yorkshire heiress, an intrepid world traveller and a proud lesbian during a time when it was difficult simply to be female. She chose to remain unmarried, dressed all in black and spoke openly of her lack of interest in men. The first woman to climb Vignemale in the treacherous Pyrenees, she journeyed as far as Azerbaijan and slept with a pistol under her pillow. As daring as Don Juan and as passionate as Heathcliff, Anne would not be constrained by the mores of Regency society. Anne's diaries lay hidden for many years, before scholars were brave enough to crack their code. Her erotic confessions and lively letters tell the story of an extraordinary woman.

A Different Kind of Fire by Susanne Schafer (from Waldorf Publishing) has a solidly historic setting but the protagonist has relationships with both women and men, which readers may want to be aware of.

Ruby Schmidt has the talent, the drive, even the guts to enroll in art school, leaving behind her childhood home and the beau she dreamed of marrying. Her life at the Academy seems heavenly at first, but she soon learns that societal norms in the East are as restrictive as those back home in West Texas. Rebelling against the insipid imagery woman are expected to produce, Ruby embraces bohemian life. Her burgeoning sexuality drives her into a life-long love affair with another woman and into the arms of an Italian baron. With the Panic of 1893, the nation spirals into a depression, and Ruby's career takes a similar downward trajectory. After thinking she could have it all, Ruby now wonders how she can salvage the remnants of her life. Pregnant and broke, she returns to Texas rather than join the queues at the neighborhood soup kitchen. Set against the Gilded Age of America, a time when suffragettes fight for reproductive rights and the right to vote, A Different Kind of Fire depicts one woman's battle to balance husband, family, career, and ambition. Torn between her childhood sweetheart, her forbidden passion for another woman, the Italian nobleman she had to marry, and becoming a renowned painter, Ruby's choices mold her in ways she could never have foreseen.

The next few books play games with time periods, either with parallel stories in multiple eras, time-slip stories, or outright time-travel. The Lilith Gene by M. Cassol (from Clink Street Publishing) suggests that we may be dealing with some paranormal connections across time, although the blurb isn’t entirely clear on that point.

Vesna, a Serbian PhD student in Art History living in Tuscany, is a master rock climber. The only thing she can't get a grip on is her love life. Beset by terrifying panic attacks that strike every time she allows herself to be intimate with another woman, she strives to avoid the so-called mermaids in her life. Olga is a widened-eye nurse trainee in Sarajevo. It’s 1912 and Olga is all too keen to document her life and the world changing around her in her diaries. Olga's passion for nursing is only rivalled by her love for her anguished boyfriend Gav. The arrival of the obscure Patient J.D. 347 at the hospital is about to change everything for Olga. Everything will change for Vesna too, when she meets the compelling art restorer Rafaella Guaritore. Rafaella holds the key to Vesna's research into influential women painters of the Renaissance and the metaphorical Lilith Gene that all the rebellious ladies in art are believed to share. Will Rafaella hold the key to solving Vesna's mysterious recurring dreams and find the root of all her anxiety? Or is the answer to Vesna's problems hidden in Olga's diaries?

Pulp by Robin Talley (from Harlequin Teen) is a more traditional time-slip story, connecting the historic and contemporary characters by means of a research project involving lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s.

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real. Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity. In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.

For outright time-travel we have Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield (from which serves up dashing adventure across the centuries. Here’s the blurb:

A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time. It's 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse. It's 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history―to save history―but seventy attempts later she's still no closer to her goal. It's 2016 and . . . well, the less said about 2016 the better! But in 2020 the Farmers and the Guides are locked in battle; time is their battleground, and the world is their prize. Only something new can change the course of the war. Or someone new. Little did they know, but they've all been waiting until Alice Payne arrives.

For those who love your steampunkish adventure, there’s a new Trafalgar and Boone story out, number 4 in the series. Trafalgar & Boone and the Children of the Burnt Empir by Geonn Cannon (from Supposed Crimes) continues the adventures of our heroines.

Dorothy Boone, still blaming herself for a devastating loss on their last adventure, and Miss Trafalgar are offered a new mission from the Royal Geographical Society: an expedition to find the source of a mythical river has gone missing in the Amazon rainforest, and their patrons want them found. It seems like the perfect low-threat endeavor to get the duo back to normalcy, so Dorothy and Trafalgar accept. Accompanied by Cora Hyde, who is also recovering from a loss, the duo sets out for the jungle. Their safe undertaking soon turns perilous when they run afoul of a previously unknown tribe known as the Burnt Empire. Dorothy and Trafalgar are separated in the scuffle and taken in by two groups with similar goals but differing tactics. The groups only agree on one point: the very existence of the Burnt Empire could lead to untold destruction.

The last book I’m going to mention this month is only tangentially of lesbian interest--the protagonist has a lesbian best friend, but it’s only a minor aspect of the story. The book came up on my radar when I was looking at Amazon listings with the keywords “lesbian” and “historical”. But the focus of the book is very feminist oriented with a less commonly heard point of view, and furthermore, the protagonist is based on an actual historic figure. This is: The Widows of Malabar Hill (A Mystery of 1920s India) by Sujata Massey (from Soho Crime).

Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father's law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes women's legal rights especially important to her. Mistry Law has been appointed to execute the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen examines the paperwork, she notices something strange: all three of the wives have signed over their full inheritance to a charity. What will they live on? Perveen is suspicious, especially since one of the widows has signed her form with an X—meaning she probably couldn't even read the document. The Farid widows live in full purdah—in strict seclusion, never leaving the women's quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate, and realizes her instincts were correct when tensions escalate to murder. Now it is her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that no innocent women or children are in further danger. Inspired in part by the woman who made history as India's first female attorney, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay as well as the debut of a sharp new sleuth.

Ask Sappho

I’m going to skip the Ask Sappho segment this month, in part because the forthcoming books took up so much time, but in part because I don’t have any intriguing questions in the queue. Remember that if you have a question about lesbian history, of would like a book list on some topic, drop me a note and I’ll answer it on the show. You can also take the opportunity to tell me how much you enjoy the podcast.

Books Mentioned

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Monday, October 29, 2018 - 07:00

This brings us near the conclusion of my mini-series on classical Roman sexuality and the bits and scraps it tells us about relationships between women. (Although I think I'll add another of my occasional primary source entries, with Iamblichos' Babylonaika and it's story of Berenike and Mesopotamia.) If you like the challenge of trying to reconstruct possible social systems from fragments, then there's both enough material to work from and enough empty canvas to paint on. But if you want a clear and unambiguous picture of the types of stories there might be to tell about women loving women in ancient Rome, then you'll be disappointed. This month's podcast tackled the question of trying to make sense of what we do know. But the largest challenge to our imagination is the very different conceptual framework the Romans were operating with. And even more so, the fact that so much of what we "know" has been strongly filtered through the attitudes and opinions of the elite male citizen class, who carefully constructed the sexual hierarchy with themselves at the top. Given those historic constraints, some may feel that there are no positive f/f stories to be told in this setting. I think that's not true, but I also think that we have to adjust our idea of "positive". Others may feel that with so little concrete knowledge about relations between women, we can invent what we like and it will be just as likely to be true as actual history. I think that, too, is not true. A modern person could not easily have invented the sexual system that applied to Roman men based purely on imagination. And we have a great deal of evidence for that system.

One of the historic novels kicking around in my files is one set in the 1st century CE, taking place in Rome and Brittania. Back 30 years ago, I actually sent it out of submission a few times. These days, I'm glad it didn't sell back then, because I have some far more interesting ideas of how to tell that story, who my characters are, and how they move through the world. (For example, I've decided that my Roman protagonist will be from an elite Egyptian family, to draw on the evidence and traditions we can find for that context.) I want to take up the challenge to find a way to tell a story that is both true to its times and emotionally satisfying to me personally. Like many of the historic stories I want to tell, it won't be a story about women who understood themselves to be part of a "lesbian identity". But it will be a story about women who exist within a cultural context of other women like themselves...whatever that means to them. And I think it will be a lot more fun to tell the story that's true to history, even with all the limitations.

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Full citation: 

Hallett, Judith & Marilyn Skinner, eds. 1997. Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01178-8

This is a collection of articles on various topics relating to sexuality in classical Roman society. When a collection like this includes only a small amount of material of direct relevant to the Project, I’ll usually blog the individual articles and then mention the ones I’ve excluded in an introductory statement. In this case, things are complicated because I’ve already blogged the most relevant article (by Judith P. Hallett) as a stand-alone, and because several of the other articles have small bits of interesting discussion. So I’m going to cover the collection as a whole in a single entry, and I’ll simply duplicate the Hallett commentary from the other entry. (This will mean the other articles aren’t listed separately in my index, but you can’t have everything.) A lot of the overall “big picture” is summarized in the Introduction, so I’ve blogged that in more detail than most of the articles themselves. All articles are listed, with an indication if I didn’t find any relevant content.

Introduction by Marilyn B. Skinner

This collection applies feminist analysis to local versions of a common Mediterranean sex/gender system. This introduction [as is typical for collections of this type] synthesizes the material into an overall understanding. Rome represents a distinct and discrete system within that common system, whose features in turn speak to other intersectional fields. As in Greece, the sex/gender system involved patterns of dominance and submission that don’t always align with biological sex. The central organizing concept is an understanding of intercourse as bodily penetration of an inferior which, taking as its prototype a male-female relationship in which the female is considered inferior, means that the penetrated individual in any coupling is “feminized”. Forms of pleasure experienced outside that framework were stigmatized.

This general pattern is pan-Mediterranean, but this collection focuses on Rome and its provinces during the period from 70 BCE to 200 CE, roughly the late Republic to the middle Empire. Changes in the position of the elite in political power structures changed their preoccupations from genuine political responsibility and power to concern with personal honor and autonomy in the face of barriers to upholding those states. The increasing incorporation of “foreigners” and former slaves into Roman society escalated prejudice along ethnic and class lines. Outsiders could gain support through personal connections (amicitia) while the old hereditary nobility responded in literature, projecting their anxieties.

Literary texts tended to reflect the elite who weren’t always aware of (or concerned with) regional differences or religious/cultural shifts in the understanding of sexuality. Elite men represented one core sexuality system, then extended that system to their dependents. Departures from the system are used as a tool for social control and commentary, often motivated by forces other than the specific sexual behaviors involved. For example, accusations of “effeminacy” could be used against any non-conformist sexuality. The grotesque descriptions of “the tribade” reinforced male images of superiority. Poetry uses “wantonness” as an expression of counter-cultural resistance.

Roman concepts of sexuality are inseparable from those of gender. “Woman” is set up as an affirming opposite to “man” but the dividing line doesn’t follow physiology. There is a discussion of different Greek and Roman attitudes toward women and their status. The Greek image and ideal was for women to be connected with the interior, private space of the household, to be a transferred property from one male to another, and to be the passive vessel for the generation of a male heir.

Roman society elevated the male control over the family to include adult children (including married daughters, in some circumstances). Women were a part of the display of the family’s status and therefore needed to be active and visible in the public sphere. The care of infants, rather than being one of the primary concerns of wives, was left to servants.  Daughters could, in theory, be eligible to be their father’s heir (even if married). Women were expected to promote their birth family’s goals within their husband’s family. If the husband did not have manus (legal control) over his wife, he also had no legal control of her property.

As a class, Roman women might be “other” and inferior, but exceptional individuals might be praised as “masculine” for displaying virtue. Female sexuality was not inherently hostile to the dominant structures. Women’s ability to inhabit “masculine” characteristics reflected the gender permeability that also stigmatized any “feminization” of men.

Greek pederasty was, ideally, a relationship between men of the same class, distinguished by age and status. Roman attitudes, in contrast, considered any acceptance of a passive role to be incompatible with “manliness” (vir-tue). Therefore relationships with young male citizens were forbidden as involving shame (stuprum). Roman (male) sexuality partook more of violence and aggressiveness compared to the Greek concept. The discussion compares sexual dynamics to various types of public entertainments involving violence.

The prototypical man (vir) was the model from which all other categories diverged and by which they were defined. This took the adult male citizen as the central model. The word vir (man) was limited in application to this central model and was not applied to boys, to working class men, to slaves, or to “disreputable” people. Vir denotes not only a set of behavioral principles but also a defining set of privileges.

This central model can also be examined in terms of what lifestyles and acts were viewed as transgressive. In contrast to the Foucaultian view of sexual acts as licit or illicit, Parker’s article suggests a system of acceptable or perverse “sexual personas” based on whether the person’s status aligned with the role the played with respect to the penetrative hierarchy. Persons who acted counter to this alignment (the tribade or the cinaedus) are categorized as monstrous and stigmatized, and these are viewed as deviant preferences.

Several of the articles are concern with the instability of male status and identity. “Infamy” (infamia) is the participation in, or pursuit of, stigmatized sexual roles. But to what extend did these “infamous” roles represent actual personal identity, as opposed to being a social tool to shame or attack individuals and behaviors? Under what circumstances could a man adopt a “feminized” persona unscathed? For example, the authorial persona of a lyric poet complaining humorously of a controlling female lover? The “controlling mistress” could have “masculine” power attributed to her without becoming monstrous. This is compared to the relationship between client and patron (amicitia).

Men characterized women simultaneously as “other” within a dualistic system, but also as a source of “natural” power both generative and destructive.

Roman society was characterized by “perilously permeable” class, ethnic, and gender boundaries. These are conflated in various combinations to express elite anxieties, e.g., sometimes depicting foreigners as hyper-virile, sometimes as feminized. Imperial women seen to possess illegitimate political power were accused of sexual excess. Any female ambition could be seen as a desire to appropriate male sexual power.

The ultimate female transgression was being the active figure in penetrative sex. The tribas stood in for this inversion of sexual norms, but Roman society could only envision sex between women as pseudo-phallic, and expected it to be expressed physiologically (i.e., with a masculine physique and enlarged clitoris) as well as in behavior. The idea of the tribade was distanced from the Roman here-and-now by identifying her as Hellenic, as existing in the past, and/or as having masculine physiology. As a Roman reality, she is simultaneously empowered and negated. And yet, non-phallic sex between women is mentioned, as in Martial’s Philaenis, who must then be framed, not as monstrous for claiming male identity, but as a failed man for behaving against male sexual norms. Similarly, see Ovid’s depiction of Sappho in the Heroides who has rejected her previous love for women but fails at being a desiring (masculine) woman, no longer allowed even her talent as a renowned poet.

Finally we have a rare female voice in the poet Sulpicia who transforms traditional male-female tropes and imagines a different type of female sexuality as an agent, just as she claims poetic agency.

Part One: Unmarked Sexuality

1. Invading the Roman Body: Manliness and Impenetrability in Roman Thought by Jonathan Walters

Phallocentrism meant that Romans found it hard to conceive of sex between women that didn’t involve either a natural (clitoris) or artificial (dildo) analog. Walters points out that the concept of “woman” in Roman discourse was a male construct, used by men to talk about men, not to talk directly about women.

Part Two: Wayward Sexualities

2. The Teratogenic Grid by Holt N. Parker

This article discusses alternate sexual maps than a binary based on similarity and difference (i.e. homosexuality and heterosexuality). Parker explores the Roman system based on an active/passive distinction and the nature of the penetrated orifice. Non-penetrative activities such as kissing, fondling, etc. are recognized as sexual, but do not participate in the construction of a sexual persona or role.

If the sex and/or status of the receptive partner in intercourse aligns with the official social hierarchy, then the act is licit.

Misalignment is anomalous and abnormal: for example, a woman in any “active” role, a “passive” man penetrating a vir, or the inversion of vaginal penetration by the act of cunnilingus (by a man). The desire to perform oral sex was seen as both “passive” and degrading, and as gender-neutral with regard to the “active” (receiving) partner. This creates the “joke” in Martial’s epigram 7.67, where the tribade Philaenis is being so “manly” that she butt-fucks boys, fucks girls, considers fellatio to be too unmanly for her to perform...but then (absurdly) enthusiastically performs cunnilingus.

The active-passive axis results in any sexual activity that does not involve inserting a penis into something being considered “unmanly”. For both sexes there is a hierarchy of “humiliation” with respect to the orifice being entered, going from least humiliating to most, it is vagina > anus > mouth.

Passivity was so expected for a woman that an indication of enjoyment was suspect. But though this was the supposed ideal, it is contradicted in literature, especially poetry, where men desire a woman who actively enjoys sex. The “abnormal” sexual roles for women exist on multiple axes, with any degree of “active” making her masculine, even simply desiring to be penetrated (especially desiring the wrong sort of person to do the penetrating). A woman can perform active sex with another woman either by rubbing (where a penetrative clitoris is assumed), or with a dildo (one penetrates the other), or by receiving cunnilingus. There are no references to mutual masturbation, though the textual data alone can’t distinguish whether it wasn’t done, or whether it was ignored due to not being part of the conceptual system. Active women are imagined to be physically masculinized, with an enlarged clitoris (regardless of whether they are engaging in sex with men or women). Clitoridectomy is described in medical texts as a possible remedy for this excess desire.

But Parker asks whether figures such as the cinaedus or the tribade as depicted actually existed, or whether they were social stereotypes used for rhetorical purposes, where actual practice and identity may have been fuzzier.

3. Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome by Catharine Edwards -- No comments.

Part Three: Gender Slippage in Literary Constructions of the Masculine

4. Dining Deviants in Roman Political Invective by Anthony Corbeill - No comments.

5. Ego mulier: The Construction of Male Sexuality in Catullus by Marilyn B. Skinner - No comments.

6. The Erotics of amicitia: Readings in Tibullus, Propertius, and Horace by Ellen Oliensis - No comments.

7. Reading Broken Skin: Violence in Roman Elegy by David Fredrick - No comments.

Part Four: Male Constructions of “Woman”

8. Pliny’s Brassiere by Amy Richlin - No comments.

9. Female Desire and the Discourse of Empire: Tacitus’s Messalina by Sandra R. Joshel - No comments.

10. Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature by Judith P. Hallett [originally blogged separately as entry #53]

This article looks at the disconnect between Roman literary considerations of female homosexuality and their everyday reality. The period covered is the 2nd century BCE through the 2nd century CE. Various mythic origins were attributed to homosexual desire. One example is the story of how a drunken Prometheus , when creating humans from clay, attached sexual organs to the “wrong” bodies, thus creating individuals whose internal preferences were counter to their external organs. One common theme in these literary discussions is to position homosexuality as foreign -- and especially Hellenic -- and as deriving from or belonging to an older era. These portrayals also represented female same-sex desire as being “masculine”, even to the point of involving male sexual organs (at least in symbolic form). This contrasts with the best-known Classical Greek reference to female homoeroticism: Plato’s myth of desire being based on originally dual-bodied individuals longing for their “other half” where the dual-bodied were composed of all possible combinations of male and female. The bulk of the article looks at the references to female same-sex desire in Roman literature that build up this “Hellenizing, archaizing, masculinizing” framing of the subject. With the understanding that these mentions are from male authors in a notoriously misogynistic culture, they provide a view -- though almost certainly a distorted one -- on everyday practice in that culture.

In the play Truculentus, a character puns on two similar-sounding words to suggest that a female character “fuck your mistress”, though the bit is a passing joke rather than a significant plot element. Seneca the Elder, in discussing how to speechify about unmentionable subjects, gives the example of a man who caught his wife having sex with another woman and killed them both, then needed to explain the matter when presenting his defense. Both of these examples draw from earlier Greek originals.

The normal word used by Roman writers for female homosexuals is tribas (meaning “one who rubs”), a Greek word and retained in its Greek form. But despite the root meaning of the word, Roman use typically implied masculine-framed activities such as penetration. The author notes that two of the three authors she cites who comment directly on contemporary Roman behavior do not use tribas.

Ovid also draws on earlier Greek material for his Metamorphoses in which the gender-disguised Iphis is in love with Ianthe and laments her desire as impossible and unnatural (until given a divine sex-change). Ovid has several passing references to Sappho and her love for women, but frames that love as shameful.

Seneca the Younger is one of the few Roman writers who comments on contemporary women who “rival men in their lusts” though the implication that it is lust for women is fuzzy. And in a longer passage, he similarly focuses on contemporary women taking on masculine habits and vices (such that they have “lost the privileges of their sex as a result of their vices”). The author notes that this “would seem to include same-sex love” but I’m not sure I’d take the allusions as conclusive.

Martial, famous as a writer of satiric epigrams, has three that address women identified as tribades. Two are addressed to a woman with the Greek name of Philaenis who participates in a great many masculine athletic activities and is rudely accused of being a sexual aggressor to both boys and girls. Martial says she correctly calls as “girlfriend (amica) the woman she fucks" and that she performs oral sex on women. Martial’s third example is similarly masculinized in his description of her sexual activity with women (even using a grammatically masculine noun for “fucker”).

Juvenal’s satires include one in the voice of a woman named Laronia who alludes to women performing mutual oral sex, but in the context of claiming that Roman women don’t do that.

Overall, it is questionable whether these examples accurately represent Roman women’s lives, but it can be assumed that they represent at least some men’s attitudes.

11. The Lovers Voice in Heroides 15: Or, Why Is Sappho a Man? by Pamela Gordon

Given the esteem in which the Greeks held Sappho, exhalting her in feminine terms as a muse, why were Romans less certain of her praiseworthy womanliness? This article looks at Ovid’s Heroides number 15 written in the voice of Sappho. The Heroides are a collection of elegaic poems attributed (probably correctly) to Ovid, which take the form of letters from abondoned heroines to the men who spurned them. [Note: while putting together this summary, it occurred to me that Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues, which takes the form of narratives of “fridged” girlfriends and wives of superheroes, is a direct homage to Ovid’s work.] In Sappho’s case, the letter is addressed to the young Phaon, who has abandoned the aging and no longer inspired poet for the girls of Sicily.

There are some questions about the provenance of the Sappho piece, given that it is not included in the earliest surviving copies of the collection, but begins appearing in 12-13th century manuscripts. (Gordon doesn’t come down solidly on the question, but does consider the work authentically Roman.) In the medieval context, the work is believed to be Ovid’s translation of an actual work by Sappho. Modern scholarship often focuses on the question of authorship but Gordon is more interested in what the work says about Roman attitudes toward sexuality.

Recent studies have suggested the poem offers alternative modes of sexuality to the traditional Roman model, while others counter that it follows the traditional model in the other poems of the collection in positing that “to be a heroine means to be abandoned.” Other scholars consider that the voice of the poem is a hybrid of Sappho’s poetic style with Ovid’s voice, upsetting the “male poetic order” but not entirely representing a feminine voice.

Considered in the context of the portrayal of female homoeroticism, the poem matches a recurring pattern in Roman (male) writing: the masculinization of tribades, both in their desires and their bodies. This “mythic mannish” Sappho (following the terminology of Newton 1984) is a product of Roman traditions, not Greek ones. How does this masculinization fit--not into general conceptions of gender--but into the gendering of other characters in the Heroides? In fitting Sappho into the category of “woman forsaken by a man” is this a deliberate “heterosexualizing” of her? (But see all the commentary on how the categories of heterosexual and homosexual are inapplicable in Roman culture.) Gordon feels that the gender elements are more complicated.

Unlike the abandoning lovers of the other Heroides, Phaon is not a hero or a king. He seems instead to be a sort of icon of youthful beauty, originally a mortal lover of Aphrodite. Phaon is mentioned in a fragment from Sappho, and Ovid may likely have had access to additional references. Scholars have reconstructed Sappho’s mention as touching on the motif of Aphrodite’s love for Phaon. In that context, the reference is part of Sappho’s unconventional approach to love between men and women. While her verses on love between women stress mutuality, the verse mentioning Phaon uses the model of a powerful goddess choosing a beautiful youth in a way that breaks free of usual male-female scripts. It imagines a dominant, desiring woman with a submissive but response man.

Ovid takes this scenario, maps it onto Sappho rather than the goddess, and sides with the dominant gender paradigm that Sappho rejects. Ovid didn’t invent the idea of Phaon being Sappho’s lover. The motif appears, for example, in the 4th century BCE plays of Menander. But Ovid takes this motif and turns it into a “conversion narrative” whereby Sappho doesn’t simply include desire for a man among the many women she desires such as Anactoria, but entirely rejects the love of women in favor of Phaon. There are also implications that she now considers her previous love for girls as disgraceful. Only in the context of 1st century BCE Rome does this framing of the story emerge.

This “conversion narrative” clashes with the Foucaultian assertion that Classical culture made no distinction in the sex of a sexual partner. Here Sappho’s love for girls and her love for Phaon are depicted as qualitatively different--as two entirely separate types of experience.

Although words derived from the name Lesbos were not yet used to denote sex between women in Classical Greek or Latin, there are a number of references indicating that the island was popularly associated with that practice. For example, Lucian’s choice of Lesbos as the origin for his gender-transgressive tribade Megilla/us.

Ovid’s other heroines are sorrowing not simply because of yearning for their absent lovers, but because their departure has created real social difficulties involving loss of status and honor. They are discarded “fallen women.” The other heroines describe their own beauty as a feature in their story, but don’t dwell on the appearance of their lovers. In contrast, Sappho describes Phaon’s beauty and then notes that at least she has skills to make up for her lack of the same. Phaon is passive compared to the other lovers: being, rather than doing. The other heroines don’t speak directly about sex, while Sappho boasts of her expertise.

The explicit language and desiring gaze of Sappho find their parallels in Ovid’s male voices. In Ovid’s stories, beauty is the cause of rape. The only male figures who are raped are similarly described as youthful and beautiful. Female rapists are punished by failure or loss, while male rapists go on their merry way.

Another aspect presented as masculinization of Sappho is in a passage where she describes an erotic dream about Phaon and admits “it all happens, it feels so good, I can’t stay dry (sicca).” But after a discussion of how sicca of a woman usually means “frigid or sexually unresponsive”, Gordon concludes that in this passige “not dry” refers to a masculine “wet dream” thus implying a penis. (This seems to overlook female secretions and emissions on arousal. But alternately, would that be something that Ovid would think to describe?)

Ovid’s Sappho has also lost the maternal devotion to Kleis that she shows in the Greek poetry and instead describes motherhood as a burden. These various features, taken together, align Ovid’s Sappho with his male characters, rather than his female ones. In this, she is reminiscent of the stereotype of the “mannish” lesbian of the early 20th century, who se identity is formed by attempting to imitate men.

Looking from the other side of the couple, why is Phaon a boy rather than an adult man? It’s because Sappho is required to be drawn to youthful beauty, just as any other vir would be. The active-passive alignment means that Sappho does not demand that Phaon love her, but rather that he allow himself to be loved. Phaon is the eromenos and Sappho the erastes. But as Phaon has grown to adulthood, he in turn is required to seek youthful beauty to love--to do, rather than to be. There can only be one “man” in a relationship, and as Phaon comes into manhood, he must reject man-Sappho.

Lucian’s female couple has one “man” (Megilla/us) and one “normal woman” (Demonassa). It is meaningful that Megilla/us is from Lesbos (the source of tribades) while Demonassa is from Corinth. Demonassa is not a tribade, only Megilla/us is.

Thus Ovid’s Sappho follows the pattern seen by Hallett (elsewhere in this collection) that women who engage in same-sex activity are seen in Roman literature as masculine, anachronistic, or Hellenic--she is made to be all three. While Greeks did not consider that a man must be “other” to love a man, Romans could only imagine same-sex love in terms of self and other. With regard to sex between women, it was not desire for a woman that made a woman a tribade, but rather the state of being a tribade made her desire women. Romans could not imagine that a woman could love a woman, therefore to love a woman, Sappho must have been a “man”.

The article concludes with a consideration of cinaei. Should we believe that they actually existed as an identifiable identity, given that the only evidence comes from hostile sources? Yet that evidence of existence can be retrieved from the textual silences. Similarly, the Roman attempts to deny the existence of women who loved women must be viewed critically. Gordon brings in comparisons from other eras when the “official” position was that to love women meant to be a man. If we disbelieve that assertion in other eras because we have counter-evidence, then why take the Roman claims at face value? Why accept the hostile definition of non-conforming women as necessarily “male” rather than understanding them as something else entirely. (The article ends with this question in the context of lesbian historical theory.)

[Note: I think there are some important cracks in the supposed “Roman sexual system” displayed here. If, as is argued for men, there is no moral distinction made with regard to the sex of a man’s partners, so long as he sticks to his approve role, then why should Sappho be depicted as seeing a qualitative difference between her relations with women and those with men? According to the “official system” perhaps Phaon should feel shame at being dominated by a woman, but there is no support in that system for Sappho feeling differently about desiring men than desiring women. To me, this leaves a lot of space either for doubting the ability of upper class Roman men to accurately depict women’s emotional lives, or for doubting that the Roman sexual system was a gender-neutral as some claim, at least when women were involved.]

Part Five: Female Construction of the Desiring Subject

12. Tandem venit amor: A Roman Woman Speaks of Love by Alison Keith

And, in fact, we have one solitary female voice, recording her own thoughts about sexual desire and her place in the Roman sexual system. This is a set of elegies by the poet Sulpicia, probably the daughter of Servius Sulpicius Rufus, writing at the very end of the 1st century BCE. Keith considers Sulpicia’s voice in parallel with the depiction of Dido in the newly-written Aeneid (and with which Sulpicia was almost certainly very familiar).

Male elegiac poetry presented no model to a female author, being concerned with men rejecting the standard male career path for the life of a poet-lover. Virgil’s Dido offers a closer parallel. The treatment of Dido in the Aeneid corresponds closely to Augustan policies on morality, and Keith suggests a possible direct connection between the representation of Dido’s sexual transgression and Augustan attempts to regulate female sexuality. Dido is an anomaly in the context of Roman cultural norms as a female head of state. But she is controlled in the narrative by restricting her story to her sexuality and its consequences. The love/desire for Aeneas converts her from a leader to a lover, and at that, a lover who has abandoned loyalty to her late husband. The article goes into some detail of how Dido’s actions went against Roman ideals, and how that transgression was depicted as the cause of her downfall and death.

The elegiac tradition set itself up in opposition to those cultural norms, but from the point of view of men rejecting cultural expectations. Sulpica expresses how the admission of desire is inherently “improper” by those cultural norms, but that she considers concealing her desire to be more shameful than proclaiming it openly. There is a discussion of the concept of pudor (“what is seemly”) that is central to the text. Sulpicia simultaneously rejects conventional pudor and invents a new standard that requires being true to love, in parallel with male elegaic poets embracing nequitia (depravity). Sulpicia equates traditional pudor with deception and concealment. “It isn’t what you do, but what you’re known to have done.” In various ways, she expresses how her beloved is “worthy” of her love, which in turn require that she honor that love with public transparency. The sequence of poems includes several that seem to unveil events around Sulpicia’s birthday. The first takes on the motif of the separated lovers, but where she has been required to retire to the country by the man who controls her movements. (There is a description of various country “delights” that are unpleasing because they mean separation from the beloved.) This is followed by joy at the journey being postponed enabling their meeting, but he is busy, distracted. She laments that the greatest grief for a woman is to “yield to an ignoble lover”. And then finally there is a happy reuniting.

Sulpicia regularly reverses the expectations of morality--her lapses are concealment, or “false pudor”, her virtues are honesty about her (socially inappropriate) passion. Thus we get a female take on expected behavior within a romantic relationship and how it might be rejected, similarly to how male elegiac poets rejected the strictures imposed on them.

Time period: 
Sunday, October 28, 2018 - 10:43

Here I am at the end of my first Sirens conference, sitting in the lobby waiting for my shuttle bus. And I figure if I don't blog about the conference now, it will probably slip down my priority list during week. (Note: parts of this were written at the airport later.)

I decided to come to Sirens with an even mixture of excitement and trepidation. A literary-oriented conference focused on women in fantasy? Totally my jam! And several people whose taste and sense I admire said wonderful things about it. But the trepidation came from how clear it was that it was a small tight-knit community with a defined culture, and I'd be showing up knowing nobody (well, ok, I did know Kate Elliott and we said hi when we bumped into each other) and uncertain how and whether I'd fit into that culture.

I'm going to give a spoiler here and say that I sufficiently enjoyed myself that I have definite plans to return and potentially add Sirens to my regular list of events to attend.

I loved the focus on thinking about literature and themes and tropes, and the conference's focus on women in fantasy (either as characters or as authors) pretty much defines my core reading and writing interests. I'd say that I woud have enjoyed attending 80% of the programming (which, of course, was arranged in tracks so I could only attend 1 out of any 4 at a time). I loved how the schedule was structured to include a lot of plenary-type events (the GOH speeches, readings, etc.) including group meals with "ice breaker" conversation starters.

Knowing I was coming into the event with a cloud of social anxiety hanging over me, I made a lot of pushes to get out in front of that. And it was necessary, because even though the event structure directly addressed the potential for social isolation of newcomers, and even though I was far from the only person willing to admit to social anxiety regarding the close-knit existing community, there was still a lot of potential for isolation for those who didn't come in to the event with an existing social circle. The conference took a lot of steps to address this, and it made a big difference.

I never ate a meal alone, though I always had to fight through a panic attack when the dinner hour approached and I didn't have any invitations. There was a designated place to meet for spontaneous dinner groups (and the limited number of walking-distance dinner spots meant that joining an existing group at one of them was also an option). The breakfasts and lunches (catered and in the main conference room) simpy involved picking a table to sit at, so although there was a certain amount of wandering around the room hoping someone would actively invite me to join them before picking a space at random, there was a clear expectation of mingling and one of the first meals even had assigned randomized seating to get the mixing going.

The big masquerade dance Saturday evening I knew was going to be a bust for me in terms of socializing due to my issues with ambient noise (and my lack of dancing), but there were a few refugees from the dance hanging out in the reg/bookroom space next door. And that space was a general hanging-out space throughout the event. So, all in all, my concerns were valid but I worked through them, and the social atmosphere created an expectation that people would be welcoming if you plunked yourself down.

The primary time when I felt uncomfortably isolated was on the shuttle bus going between the airport and the venue (a couple hour drive). The seating wasn't crowded enough to fill all the seats and for that same reason I think people felt uncomfortable sitting down next to someone unless they were together already. On the trip out at the beginning, once I realized I was starting an anxiety attack, I stood up and announced that it was my first Sirens and I didn't know anyone and I hoped to change that before the end of the bus ride. This generated a round of introductions, but didn't immediately carry over into actually getting to know anyone. (I did get included in a conversation later in the trip.) On the trip back today I was sitting alone again, but I didn't have the energy to do anything about it so I just worked on marking up my sample ballot. But once at the airport I posted about looking for dinner company (given a 3 hour wait before boarding) and enjoyed a great time with several other people in the same spot. So the socializing was ups and downs but mostly all good in the end.

For those who worry about the "graying of fandom", you would get an entirely different impression if you came to Sirens. I couldn't calculate what the age distribution was, but definitely skewing to the younger-than-40, maybe younger-than-30. My wild-ass guess is that maybe there were half a dozen members my age or older. This, along with the strong presence of library professionals was probably a factor in the significant presence of young adult fiction in the scope of the material. The age thing did make me feel a little out of step, but at the same time it made me very happy for the vibrancy and energy of the conference.

In addition to the group guest of honor events, there were three main types of programming: papers, panels, and round tables. The first two are what you might expect from the labels. The round tables were moderater-led group discussions of around 20 people. (My contribution to programming was a round table on the topic of "Finding Books, Finding Readers, the problem of communicating lesbian content in fantasy" which was enthusiastically participated in.) Some of my favorites among the programming were a paper on the gendered nature of villainy, and a panel on how the bildungsroman narrative often doesn't fit the shape of women's lives and what a late-life female bildungsroman might look like. There was a panel on historical fantasy that looked intriguing but had a panelist missing which made it feel a bit thin. I'm already brainstorming programming ideas for next year (theme: heroes), though the requirement for panels that the proposer come up with the list of panelists in addition to the topic is a bit of a hindrance. But I've jotted down some notes...

Oh, and yes, I plan to go back next year.

Major category: 
Saturday, October 27, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 27d - Woman Plus Woman in Classical Rome - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/10/27 - listen here)


This month’s essay was a request from author and past podcast guest Kathleen Knowles who responded to a call for Ask Sappho topics by noting that we hear a lot of about Sappho and the ancient Greeks, but what about Classical Roman women? Well, that was more than just an Ask Sappho segment could cover, and it made a good excuse to get the blog caught up on some of the books on Roman sexuality that I’d been accumulating.

I’m going to warn listeners up front that this show will be including some explicit discussion of sexual acts and will include more content relating to men’s sexuality than is at all typical for the show. This is definitely a “not safe for work” episode. If listeners are interested in seeing the texts I talk about in the original Latin and Greek, I’ll include some of them in the transcript on the blog.

To some extent, the time period I’ll be covering is defined by the available sources. While “classical Rome” is often identified roughly as the 2nd century BCE through the 2nd century CE, the earliest Roman texts that clearly talk about sex between women date to the middle of that period. Romans had access to earlier Greek texts on the topic, but one of the things we want to look at here are differences in how the two cultures approached sexuality.

Another aspect to examine is the differences between the opinions of the elite men whose writings are our primary source of information, and the evidence that can be extracted from other types of sources which at least hint at other opinions and models. In particular, there are scraps of information from the Roman provinces that present a different image from that of Rome proper.

One of the continuing themes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is a recognition that models of sexuality and gender are not fixed and universal. Sexuality isn’t some sort of absolute mathematical truth of the universe. And while it’s always tempting to apply moral judgments to the modes of other eras and other cultures, that temptation can reflect an unwarranted assumption that we--for whatever value of “we” you understand--have some sort of perfectly enlightened view of the topic. Let’s not mince words: many of the basic assumptions of classical Roman sexuality are rather horrifying in the context of modern sexual and cultural ethics. And that includes some of the evidence that people use to portray Roman society as being friendly to homosexuality. Male-homosexuality, that is. If there’s one thing that the Roman texts make completely clear, it’s that you need to be very careful about extrapolating women’s sexuality in ancient Rome based on the behavior and opinions around men’s sexuality. But conversely, it’s impossible to tease out the evidence about women’s sexuality without first understanding the Roman view of male sexuality. So this podcast is going to start with a rather unusual emphasis on men.

The Roman Sexual Hierarchy

If you go by the writings of elite Roman men in the fields of law, philosophy, and literature, you can easily trace a set of rules for proper sexual behavior. A good in-depth introduction to this system can be found in Craig Williams’ book Roman Homosexuality and I’ll be leaning heavily on his presentation.

This sexual system was preoccupied with penetrative sex as the core sex act. All other sexual activities were either fit into this model in some way or pretty much ignored. There was a hierarchy of status regarding one’s role in sex acts in terms of whether one was the “insertive” or the “receptive” partner--Williams uses these terms instead of “active” and “passive” as more clearly pointing out the underlying system.

There was a hierarchy of--let’s call it respectability--with regard to the orifice involved in the act, but only with respect to the receptive partner. Vaginal sex was more respectable than anal sex was more respectable than oral sex. The hierarchy in terms of sexual role was expected to align with social hierarchies involving biological sex, age, citizenship status, both current and former enslavement status, and respectability of occupation.

At the apex of all these hierarchies was the adult male citizen. By definition this description excludes foreigners and formerly enslaved persons. This apex category is not a historian’s hypothetical construct; it aligns closely with those persons for whom the word vir “man” was used, the word at the root of things like “virility” or “virtue”. Not all male people were vir, with the privileges and obligations that status brought.

In the Roman sexual hierarchy, this apex man was always expected to be the insertive partner in sex. Any action to place him in a receptive role--whether by force or by his own volition--was stuprum “shame or disgrace” and brought his status as a vir into question. In contrast, it was not shame for someone outside this apex category to be a receptive partner, as long as the hierarchy was maintained and their corresponding insertive partner was of higher status. Men had higher status than women. Citizens had higher status than non-citizens or foreigners. Free-born people had higher status than freedmen who had previously been enslaved, and freedmen had higher status than those currently enslaved. (Keep in mind that in Roman culture, the category of enslaved people was quite permeable in both directions. And although a person had unchallenged power over their own slaves, there were clear limits to what was acceptable to do to other people’s slaves.) Certain professions also placed one in lower status, such as being an actor or, rather obviously, a prostitute.

At the opposite end of the scale from the vir, the apex man, was an enslaved woman with respect to her male owner. It was not considered possible for her to experience shame--stuprum--in the context of sex because she was expected by definition to be available for any type of sexual act required of her. And conversely, the most shameful sexual act imaginable would have been for an adult male citizen to perform oral sex on his female slave.

Within the vast territory between those two extremes we have the complicated negotiation of appropriate sexual behavior. And the most useful information we have on it comes from situations where people were considered to have violated the rules. It’s in the context of these violations that some historians have identified a concept of homosexuality in Roman culture and a theory that one can identify a male homosexual subculture at work. Other historians feel this is a misunderstanding of the social and sexual dynamics, and an imposition of modern social categories onto a social structure they don’t fit.

Williams--despite the word “homosexuality” in the title of his book--falls in the latter group. He points out that these underlying “rules” for sexual interactions in Roman society don’t put much if any weight on the question of whether sexual partners are of the same or different biological sexes. A Roman vir remains a vir regardless of who and what he’s sticking his dick into, as long as the only sex act he ever performs is sticking his dick into things. A Roman man who should behave as a vir but instead shows an interest in the receptive role, or who behaves in other ways contrary to the ideals of his position, moves into another category entirely. For male people, the most unmanly category is not that of enslaved man--because they are not expected to uphold the standards of a vir--but that of a cinaedus, a man who seeks out and enjoys a receptive role in sex, or other activities and experiences that are considered antithetical to manliness.

Williams suggests understanding the Roman insertive and receptive sexual roles as representing different gender categories, rather than different sexes. And that one can’t really think in terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality in the modern sense if the two men involved in a sex act are understood to belong to different genders: vir and cinaedus. While much of Roman satirical or critical writings about sexual roles touches on the question of having preferences for certain types of sex acts or certain types of partners, he suggests that these preferences were not considered an inherent and universal part of one’s sexual identity, but rather might be compared to a preference for a particular body type, or a particular hair color.

Much of our understanding of the “official” Roman sexual system comes from all the many situations and individuals who either deliberately step outside the system and express sexual activities and desires that they aren’t supposed to want. Or the many satires and political attacks in which men are accused of sexual behaviors that should be shameful. The fact that we have so much of this material points out to what extent the normative system was a hypothetical ideal rather than a description of everyday behavior.

How Women Break the Pattern

This understanding of Roman sexual dynamics makes a great deal of sense as a consistent system right up to the point where women come into the question. In parallel with the concept of a biological male-female polarity, Roman gender concepts held that anything that moved a man away from the ideals of the vir, the manly man, was inherently feminizing. This wasn’t only applied to taking a receptive role in sex. Feminization could come from any sort of deviation from masculine virtues. So excess indulgence in food and drink was feminizing. Wearing luxurious clothing was feminizing. Being too concerned with an attractive appearance was feminizing. Walking or talking in certain ways was feminizing. Participating in the performing arts was feminizing.

That doesn’t mean that these things were necessarily considered to be desirable in women. In fact, excessive gluttony and drunkenness in women was considered to be “too masculine.” It was more that women were considered to be the opposite pole to manliness. To deviate from the ideal of manliness was to be feminine and despised. This, of course, tells you a certain amount about the official Roman male view of women.

So how do women fit into the Roman sexual system?

Within the approved Roman sexual system--which we’ve already seen is a hypothetical ideal rather than a realistic description of behavior--women’s role was to be a passive receptive vessel for the sexual activities of men. But of course there were other rules in play. A free married woman should never have sex with anyone but her husband, but if she did, it was worse for her to have sex with someone of lower status than higher status. And a woman should never take on an insertive sexual role with any man, a rule that ordinarily came into play with regard to oral sex where the person performing oral sex was considered to be receptive regardless of the topography of the act. For a woman to take an active or “insertive” role in sex was to behave in a masculine fashion, even if her sexual partner was male. In fact, almost any type of sexual transgression by women resulted in the woman being accused of being masculine--even to the point of assuming that it would result in physiological changes, such as an enlarged clitoris, regardless of the sex of the woman’s partner.

If we know a great deal about the realities of the sex life of Roman men from all the discussions of them breaking the rules, should we assume that women broke the rules in equal numbers? What would breaking the rules look like for a woman? For men, having a same-sex partner wasn’t breaking the rules as long as the hierarchies were followed. So what about women? Were there circumstances where sex between women fit into the Roman sexual rules?

There are only a few Roman texts that discuss sexual activity between women, especially compared to the vast amount of discussion of men’s interactions. Why? Because an entire series of filters ensured that it was primarily men’s thoughts that survived for posterity. Men were more likely to be literate than women. Men had more access to the creation of literature. Men’s writings were more likely to be preserved, not only at the time of their original writing, but over the centuries down to our time. And men were much more interested in policing the sexual behavior of other men than they were in policing women’s behavior, at least with other women. This means that the few substantial texts that we do have about sex between women tell us only what men thought about the topic. And that point of view shows logical inconsistencies that suggest it’s far from a reliable description of women’s everyday experience.

How did women have sex with each other?

Within the Roman sexual system, “abnormal” sexual roles for women exist on multiple axes. Taking any sort of “active” role was considered to make her masculine, even if she simply expressed enjoyment or desire for sex (especially sex with the wrong sort of person). Passivity was so expected for a woman that any indication of enjoyment could be considered suspect.

But this supposed ideal is regularly contradicted in literature, especially poetry, where men express admiration for a woman who actively enjoys sex. Furthermore, there is a specific verb in Latin referring to the movements a woman makes during intercourse to show pleasure and another verb meaning “to give a woman pleasure during intercourse.” So we can discard any idea of Roman women adhering faithfully to the rule about passivity.

The next step beyond simply enjoying sex is for a woman to take an insertive role. Male writers are most often concerned about women taking an insertive role with respect to a man, which most often meant receiving cunnilingus which, as noted above, was considered extremely shameful for the man. With another woman, a woman can perform active sex either by rubbing (which men assume involves a penetrating clitoris), or with a dildo, or by receiving cunnilingus.

Every meaningful sex act had its own verbs and nouns in Latin, indicating the role and the orifice involved. So when a woman is described as a fututrix, it specifically means “a woman who performs an insertive role with respect to a vagina.” In Pompeii, there is graffiti from two woman proudly proclaiming theselves, “Miduse fututrix” and “Mula foutoutris”, that is, “women who fuck” with the word certainly implying that they fucked women (though Adams in The Latin Sexual Vocabulary makes an effort to erase this as a possible meaning, in defiance of grammar). Romans were quite aware of the function of the clitoris during sex though, as in later ages, they were so fixated on penetrative sex that they primarily envisioned it being used for this function.

The more usual word for a woman who stepped outside the expected role was tribas, a borrowing of a Greek word meaning “one who rubs”, although male writers often associated the role with penetration and considered only the insertive female partner to be the tribas. But a tribas was not specifically “a woman who has sex with other women” but rather “a woman who takes an active role in sex, generally.” This fits in with the overall pattern of the Roman sexual system that isn’t concerned with the gender of the partner, but only with the appropriateness of the activity for the person performing it. And, as noted later, the theory was that a tribas had sex with women, not because she specifically desired women partners, but because she desired to perform insertive sex and women were the expected partner for that activity. A tribas might fuck men, but that only meant that her receptive partner was also breaking the rules.

The same underlying meaning occurs in the Latin word frictrix (usually found in medieval Latin as fricatrix) which again means “one who rubs” with the same root as the word “friction.” Other words for rubbing or grinding that are found in sexual contexts in Latin including molo or tero. I don’t know whether these are found in contexts that could involve two women, though verbs of grinding are commonly used for sex between women cross-culturally.

The Latin word for performing oral sex on a woman is quite familiar because it’s been borrowed as the modern technical term: cunnilingus. The grammatical structure of the word indicates that it became a fixed compound fairly early, literally meaning “cunt-licking.” But in Latin texts this word most often occurs when a man is performing the act, specifically because it as considered extremely degrading for a man to perform oral sex on a woman.

This didn’t mean that the practice was ok between women--the Romans had a very negative attitude toward oral sex in general. The satirist Juvenal has a female character named Laronia uphold the moral superiority of women over men by noting that while certain men (she names one) will perform mutual fellatio with each other, Roman women would never do the same with each other. Tedia non lambit Cluviam nec Flora Catullam. “Tedia does not lick Cluvia, nor Flora lick Catulla.” But condemnations of this type shouldn’t be taken as a negative attitude toward sex between women in general, only of a specific sex act that was considered degrading when done by anyone.

There are no clear references to women engaging in mutual masturbation, and legal and polemical texts do not, in general, condemn expressions of affection between women, such as kissing, hugging, and intimate touching, so these may not have been viewed as sexually transgressive, despite falling under the broad category of eroticism. Lucian’s courtesan--about whom more later--puts her arms around a woman and receives kisses, including open-mouthed kisses, in what is clearly the initiation of sex that includes caressing the breasts as well as other acts the courtesan claims she’s too embarrassed to describe. Lucian satirizes the scene, but focusing primarily on her partner’s performative masculinity.

At first they kissed me like men, not simply bringing their lips to mine, but opening their mouths a little, embracing me, and squeezing my breasts. Demonassa even bit me as she kissed, and I didn’t know what to make of it.

Romans created a lot of sexual art, though the low-brow sort tended to be less durable than marbles and bronzes. The preserved wall paintings in Pompeii include many depictions of sex acts, among which two--maybe--show sex between women. Both appear as part of a series of paintings located in a house of prostitution that depict incrementally increasing levels of “perversion” as the series goes on. Although the paintings are damaged and difficult to see in detail, there are clues to the gender of the figures in conventions of depiction, such as skin tone and hairstyle. Scene number 5 in the series shows a clearly female figure (identifiable by a breast-band, though otherwise naked) reclining in bed and raising one leg to rest on the shoulder of a standing figure who appears, by artistic convention, to be female as well. Speculation suggests that the standing figure may originally have been depicted wearing a dildo but that portion of the painting no longer exists. The next scene shows a threesome with two men and a single woman, but the one after that has a foursome that includes a woman receiving cunnilingus from another woman (among several other sex acts).

But pornographic art such as this isn’t the only possible depiction of relations between women. Roman visual art is rarely, if ever, accompanied by explanatory text telling the viewer how to understand the postures and relationship of the figures, but if one extrapolates from positively-depicted heterosexual scenes we can identify clearly parallel symbolic relationships in some scenes between women.

Mythologic themes involving all-female groups such as the Muses, Graces, and Maenads frequently imply homoeroticism by means of signifiers such as nudity and caressing of the shoulders and breast or touching the face. The Graces may be staged in a parallel context with erotes (cupid-like figures associated with sexuality), strengthening the erotic interpretation. The Muses were commonly associated with Sappho, not only in the latter being named "the tenth Muse", but in being associated with Lesbos, a location with erotic associations even when not specifically homoerotic. The Muses are frequently depicted enjoying an all-female assembly in which they gaze on each other and perform for each other. Their postures are reflected in depictions of mortal musicians with female listeners embracing each other during the performance.

Representations of female homoeroticism involving the goddess Aphrodite or Venus are also notable. Women are portrayed as receiving advice and assistance from the goddess in their romantic affairs, and this interaction is often depicted visually as involving embraces and other close contact with the goddess. The goddess may be understood as inflaming passion in the woman in preparation for a human lover. This view of homoeroticism (that is, "preparing a woman for heterosexual love") is often looked askance from a modern point of view but may have been part of the Roman homoerotic landscape.

Same-Sex Marriage

One of the more startling topics with regard to men’s same-sex relationships are references to marriages between men. Often the marriages are brought up in the context of political satire or personal attacks, so are we meant to take the references literally or are they meant mockingly? Williams gives some credence to the practice of marriage between men, although in some cases the references likely were only satirical. It appears that such marriages would not be entered into the official registry (but neither were all marriages between men and women). Marriages between men didn’t fit into the formal structures of Roman marriage because those structures were concerned with the begetting of legitimate freeborn children. And although “male brides” might be the subject of satire, the marriages themselves seem to be treated seriously. Seriously enough to cause political upheaval on occasion. Williams concludes that such marriages happened and the men considered themselves spouses, but the relationship was treated as anomalous and always involved treating one partner as being feminized by the relationship.

And what about marriages between women? We actually have some data on that topic, though again, some of it may be intended satirically. The most positive evidence comes in a simple gravestone commemorating two freedwomen, Eleusis and Helena, shown clasping right hands--a pose called dextrarum iunctio that was used to symbolize a married couple.

The astrologer Claudius Ptolomy notes that in a particular conjunction of planets, “women are secret tribades, but if Mars [appears] as well, they live openly and sometimes even call their partners lawful wives,” suggesting at least the performance of a marriage-like relationship.

In Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, which I’ll go into in more detail later, we are introduced to two women who present themselves as a married couple. They are almost certainly fictional characters, and the image of them as married is part of depicting one member of the couple as having an extremely masculine presentation.

There is additional evidence for marriage between women in Egypt, but I’m going to have a separate discussion of various Egyptian topics at the end.

Causes of same-sex desire

Roman authors discussed a number of ideas about the cause or nature of same-sex desire. Though, these same sources discussed the causes of desire for other categories of partners not related to gender, such as age or social class, so this isn’t quite the same as recognizing an essential category of homosexual orientation. These ideas range from mythic stories that show how they understood desire, to medical and astrological texts that discussed and classified types of desire, either with or without value judgments about them.

We shouldn’t take mythic stories as reflecting literal beliefs about human origins, but they do suggest certain attitudes. In contrast to Plato’s origin story about sexual desire reflecting a drive to find “one’s other half”, which treated same-sex and opposite-sex desire as equivalent, the fable recorded by Phaedrus about a drunken Prometheus attaching sexual organs to the “wrong” bodies--penises to female bodies and vaginas to male bodies--reflects an opinion that there were “right” bodies to attach them to. In this fable, the cinaedus appears physically to be male by virtue of having a penis, but his sexual behaviors and desires for a passive role in sex are due actually being female. Similarly, the tribas appears to be physically female, due to having a vagina, but behaves in sexually aggressive ways due to “actually” being male.

Their behavior is viewed as resulting from a type of gender dysphoria [my term] within an obligatorily heteronormative system. This should be distinguished from a theory of transgender identity because it assumes a fixed relationship between gender identity and preferred sex acts and partners. This view assumes that the partners of the cinaedus and the tribas are behaving “normally” in accordance with the sexual desires that their bodies dictate. This theory is echoed by the 5th century medical writer Caelius Aurelianus who suggests that molles (another term for cinaedus) and tribades also experience an excess of lust, which leads to other sexual vices besides taking the supposedly wrong role in insertive sex. He writes:

nam sicut feminae tribades appellatae, quod utramque venerem exerceant, mulieribus magis quam viris misceri festinant et easdem inidentia paene virili sectantur...

“Just as those women called ‘tribades’--because they engage in both kinds of sexual practice--seek intercourse with women more than with men and pursue women with almost a man’s jealousy...”

By this definition, a tribade might just as easily choose a passive man as her sexual partner. Her identity comes not from the gender of her sexual partner (just as men’s nature is not determined by the gender of their sexual partner), but from the nature of the acts she desires to perform with them and the fact of taking the active role. Thus, Seneca describes masculine women as “drinking to excess and penetrating men” (apparently unconcerned with what they might be doing with women).

I’m going to digress for a moment to note a problematic aspect of historical analysis that I’ve seen in some academic work on Roman sexuality. It becomes possible to question the existence of sexual acts between women unless the text is very explicit about it. Adams, in The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, dismisses same-sex interpretations of terms for sexually active women unless no other interpretation is possible. This is something of a conundrum: within the context of the Roman sexual system, it’s true that terms like tribas or cunnilinctor or even perhaps fututrix do not automatically imply sex acts between women. But by the very same argument, there’s no reason why the possibility of a female partner should be actively excluded. The flaw in Adams’ analysis is not that he points out that a tribas might have a male partner, but that he considers it more doubtful or implausible that she might have a female one.

The literature of astrology and dream analysis reflect the expectation that people might have personal sexual preferences for a specific gender of partner. Artemidorus explains the meaning of a woman who dreams about penetrating, or being penetrated by, another woman, but considers these reasonable dreams to experience. The astrology manual of Julius Firmicus Maternus, written in the 4th century and so falling a bit after our core period, asserts that certain conjunctions of the stars will reverse sexual expectations: “women will be born with masculine character, but men will become castrates or eunuchs or male prostitutes.” The implication is that gender identity is what is affected and that sexual expression will follow from that.

“If Saturn is in opposition, in square aspect, or conjunction with Venus, located as we have said with Mars, women who have this combination make love impurely and unchastely to other women due to lust. These vices will be stronger if this combination occurs in Capricorn or Aries.”

“Si vero sic positam cum Marte Venerem in his, in quibus diximus, signis aliqua Saturnus radiatione respexerit, idest aut per quadratum aut per diametrum aut simul positus, mulieres, quae sic habuerint Venerem cum hac stellarum societate, inpure et inpudice cum mulieribus coibunt libidinis causa. Sed haec vitia erunt fortiora, si in Capricorno vel Ariete haec se stellarum mixtura coniunxerit.”

The assumption by men that sex between women is penetrative

When male-author texts consider the topic of women having sex with women, there is an assumption not only that some type of penetrative sex is involved, but that the act will involve male-acting tribas and a “normal” woman who is indifferent with regard to the gender of her partner. Thus we have Seneca the Elder discussing a legal case in which a man found his wife having sex with a woman and killed them both, just as he would if he found her with a male lover. The man claimed after the fact that he had to check to see if the intruder was performing with her own organ or a dildo, but the offense was the presence of an unauthorized penis-like object.

Women who had sex with women were both satirized for behaving like men, and then evaluated against standards of masculinity and mocked for failing them. I’ll talk about that more in connection with the poet Martial below. Women with women present a crack in the facade of the theory that Roman sexuality did not judge on the basis of one’s partner’s sex.

Imagining Love Between Women

Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that a society as misogynistic as Classical Rome should become irrational around the idea of two women loving each other. When we step away from the question of sex acts and consider romantic love and desire, we can see this clearly.

The poet Ovid follows a common pattern in distancing the subjects of his work from the Roman here-and-now. He places his woman-loving-women in mythic times and distant lands: Iphis and Ianthe in Crete and invoking Egyptian deities, Sappho in a Greece that was ancient by his time. But this makes the attitudes he betrays even clearer.

Ovid’s series of mythic poems known as the Metamorphoses include a fair number of sexual digressions. One thing they definitely include is examples of a casual acceptance of romantic and sexual love between men. Even when the overarching story may find fault with how the men expressed that love, the stories never call into question the existence and possibility of the men’s experiences.

But when he turns to the story of Iphis and Ianthe, Ovid’s imagination fails. On its face, Iphis and Ianthe is more of a transgender story than a same-sex one, but as we’ve seen above, the Roman imagination tended to impose a conceptual heteronormative binary even when same-sex pairs are involved. Iphis is raised as a boy due to her father’s stated intention to kill any daughter he has. In that guise, she and Ianthe fall in love--Ianthe is in ignorance of the disguise, and takes the role of the “normal” woman in the couple. But Iphis considers the fulfillment of their love as impossible and unnatural and spends a great many verses agonizing over this point. On the eve of their wedding, Iphis’s mother prays to Isis to intervene and the goddess transforms Iphis into a man.

The story can be seen alternately as supporting or condemning female same-sex love. The author shows no overt disapproval of Iphis's feelings when, in a female body, she loves a woman. But neither is this situation allowed to stand. Same-sex love is literally erased by means of divinely-mediated sex-change.

The part that fails to match the supposed Roman sexual system is the idea that there’s something uniquely impossible about desire between two female-bodied persons. Nothing in the sexual hierarchies detailed by Williams and others suggests impossibility. Even Martial’s most biting satires recognize that a female-bodied person could desire a female-bodied person--perhaps not specifically or exclusively, but within the scope of possibility. This asymmetric negation of possibility should raise a big red flag regarding either the reliability of male Roman authors around the topic of women and sexuality, or regarding the application of the Roman sexual hierarchy to women.

This same asymmetry occurs in another work attributed to Ovid, the story of Sappho and Phaon that appears in his Heroides, a series of letters from classic heroines lamenting being abandoned by their lovers. In brief, the poet Sappho has, late in life, fallen hopelessly in love with the youth Phaon, and has thrown herself off a cliff to drown in despair over his rejection of her.

Ovid didn’t invent the idea of Phaon being Sappho’s lover, though it appears to have arisen from a misinterpretation of poems written in the voice of Aphrodite. In mythic tradition, Phaon was a youth beloved by the goddess. The Sappho story appears as early as the 4th century BCE plays of Menander. But Ovid takes this motif and turns it into a “conversion narrative” whereby Sappho doesn’t simply include desire for a man among the many women she desires, such as Anactoria, but entirely rejects the love of women in favor of Phaon. There are also suggestions in the text that she now considers her previous love for girls as disgraceful. Only in the context of Ovid’s Rome does this framing of the story emerge.

Ovid’s Sappho follows a pattern seen in Roman literature that women in same-sex relationships are depicted as masculine, anachronistic, or Hellenic--from Ovid’s point of view, she is all three. While Greeks treated same-sex love as appropriate between members of the same social category, Romans visualized same-sex love in terms of a social hierarchy of categories. With regard to sex between women, Romans held that it was not desire for a woman that made a woman a tribade, but rather the state of being a tribade that made her desire women. Romans could not imagine that a woman could love a woman, therefore to love women, Sappho must have been masculine in some essential fashion.

The cracks in the system appear when we consider the “conversion narrative” aspect of the story. If, as is argued for men, there is no moral distinction made with regard to the sex of one’s partners, then why should Sappho be depicted as seeing a qualitative difference between her relations with women and those with men? According to the Roman sexual system perhaps Phaon should feel shame at being dominated by a woman, but there is no support in that system for Sappho feeling differently about desiring men than desiring women. Just as there is no support in the alleged Roman sexual system for requiring Iphis to be transformed physically into a man in order to love a woman, rather than simply being considered to have masculine characteristics. In fact, if Sappho is viewed as a tribas in the Roman system, then it should have been more acceptable for her to have female lovers, than a male one.

An author known as the Pseudo-Lucian (because his works were falsely attributed to Lucian) demonstrates this hypocrisy clearly in a philosophical treatise debating whether it was preferable for men to love boys or to love women. One of the characters appears to argue for love between women as being equally acceptable as love between men.

“Come now, epoch of the future,” he says, “legislator of strange pleasures, devise fresh paths for male lusts, but bestow the same privilege upon women, and let them have intercourse with each other just as men do. Let them strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of lechery, those mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed, and let woman lie with woman as does a man. Let wanton Lesbianism [tribadism]--that word seldom heard, which I feel ashamed even to utter--freely parade itself, and let our women’s chambers emulate Philaenis, disgracing themselves with Sapphic amours [literally: androgynous amours]. And how much better that a woman should invade the provinces of male wantonness than that the nobility of the male sex should become effeminate and play the part of a woman!"

The punch line, of course, is that this is meant as a reductio ad absurdum argument against love between men. Why, if you support that, the next thing you know you’ll claim that even women can love each other! Keep that name Philaenis in mind for later. She was a possibly fictional poet of the 4th century BCE to whom a treatise on sexual positions was attributed.

In any event, there’s a lot of reason either for doubting the ability of upper class Roman men to accurately depict women’s emotional lives, or for doubting that the Roman sexual system was gender-neutral as some claim, at least when women were involved. Without belaboring the point any more than I have already, the Hannibal-sized elephant in the triclinium is misogyny. The rules went sideways around women loving women because, if to love a woman was to become masculine, then such a woman must be despised for trying to rise above her station. And it’s necessary to keep that constantly in mind when looking at the small handful of detailed narratives we have around women’s same-sex relations.

Women’s Voices

So if we need to give men the side-eye when they talk about women’s sex lives, do we have any women to listen to? I already mentioned some graffiti at Pompeii written in women’s voices -- and there’s no good reason not to interpret them as being written by women -- proclaiming their sexual roles. But the equivalent of public bathroom graffiti isn’t a very nuanced genre for understanding women’s interior lives.

And, in fact, we have one solitary female voice, recording her own thoughts about sexual desire and her place in the Roman sexual system. This is a set of elegies by the poet Sulpicia, writing at the very end of the 1st century BCE. She wrote a series of elegiac poems that take the form of letters to the man she was in love with. It’s clear from the context that they weren’t married, and Sulpicia had a guardian who had control over her movements and actions. But conversely, she seems to have been free to express her desires--if not her actions--openly, and her poems were preserved for posterity.

The elegiac tradition set itself up in opposition to cultural norms of propriety, but usually from the point of view of men rejecting those cultural expectations. Sulpica expresses how the admission of desire is inherently “improper” by those cultural norms, but that she considers concealing her desire to be more shameful than proclaiming it openly. Sulpicia simultaneously rejects conventional ideas of shame (pudor) and invents a new standard that requires being true to love, in parallel with male elegaic poets embracing nequitia (depravity). Sulpicia equates traditional pudor with deception and concealment. “It isn’t what you do, but what you’re known to have done.” In various ways, she expresses how her beloved is “worthy” of her love which, in turn, requires that she honor that love with public transparency. When her lover appears to be blowing her off, she laments that the greatest grief for a woman is to “yield to an ignoble lover”.

Sulpicia regularly reverses the expectations of morality--her lapses are concealment, or “false pudor”, her virtues are honesty about her (socially inappropriate) passion. Thus we get a female take on expected behavior within a romantic relationship and how it might be rejected, similarly to how male elegiac poets rejected the strictures imposed on them.

Of course, this is a woman expressing desire for a man who presumably might be a suitable husband. Her transgression isn’t in the object of her desire, but in openly admitting that she feels that desire. Still, it’s a rare example of a woman’s voice, mapping out a different set of rules than the ones imposed on her by society.

Satires on sexually aggressive women

[Latin texts from]

I think we now have enough background to take a critical look at the few detailed texts about sex between women that come down to us from Roman writers. The poet Martial was most famous for his bitingly satirical epigrams--short witty poems full of crude humor and sarcastic word-play. He teases both men and women for their non-normative sexual exploits, so don’t let the examples here give the impression that he was particularly nasty to women.

Two of his epigrams are aimed at a woman named Philaenis. You may remember I mentioned a Philaenis who was the supposed author of a sex manual several centuries earlier. Martial’s Philaenis--whether one woman or two--is addressed as a contemporary, but it’s possible that the name is an alias, used for the sexual nature of the verses. Let’s start with the shortest of the three poems.

Ipsarum tribadum tribas, Philaeni,
recte, quam futuis, uocas amicam.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to recite all the poems in Latin! A fairly literal, if crude, translation is:

Philaenis, a tribade among the tribades themselves,
You rightly call she whom you fuck, your lady-love.

The humor is likely lost somewhere down the centuries, but the shock value was intended to be using the verb futuo for a woman’s action, since it was the verb specifically indicating penis-in-vagina sex.

The second epigram addressed to a Philaenis goes into more detail regarding her sexual exploits, attributing to her a masculine-style sexual prowess with both boys and girls, describing her as a glutton, and then insulting her with a particularly Roman twist: accusing her of performing cunnilingus even though she considered herself above performing fellatio. Once more it’s impossible to translate the original sense accurately without crude language.

Pedicat pueros tribas Philaenis
et tentigine saeuior mariti
undenas dolat in die puellas.
Harpasto quoque subligata ludit
et flauescit haphe, grauesque draucis
halteras facili rotat lacerto,
et putri lutulenta de palaestra
uncti uerbere uapulat magistri:
nec cenat prius aut recumbit ante
quam septem uomuit meros deunces;
ad quos fas sibi tunc putat redire,
cum coloephia sedecim comedit.
Post haec omnia cum libidinatur,
non fellat — putat hoc parum uirile —
sed plane medias uorat puellas.
Di mentem tibi dent tuam, Philaeni,
cunnum lingere quae putas uirile.

The tribade Philaenis buggers boys
And with an erection worse than a husband’s
Afflicts eleven girls in a day.
She plays ball with her clothes tied up
Dirty from the sand, she easily
lifts weights that are heavy for men,
Dirty from the muddy ring
She’s beaten by the well-oiled teacher.
She doesn’t dine or lie down until after
She’s vomited seven measures of unmixed wine;
To which she thinks she should return
After eating sixteen steaks.
After all that, when she gets horny
She won’t suck dick--that’s not manly enough--
But she devours girls’ crotches.
May the gods give you back your sense, Philaenis,
If you think it manly to lick cunts.

For all its sexual crudity, this poem dissects Roman sexual attitudes with a scalpel. Philaenis is depicted as unfeminine, not only in being a sexual aggressor against both boys and girls, but in taking part in athletics at the public facilities, and in her gluttony and drunkenness. Though of course gluttony and drunkenness were considered unmanly when indulged in by men. She upholds the manly virtues in refusing to perform fellatio, but Martial’s punchline is that she “thinks it manly to perform cunnilingus on girls.” The satire here is focusing on her upside down values. She, a woman, does all these masculine things, but fails because she embraces the most unmanly act of all.

Setting aside the possibility that Martial chose this description only because he considered it the most insulting thing he could think of, what if he’s trying to wrap his head around the apparently contradictory behavior of an actual woman? He considers her monstrous, not only for indulging in male-coded activities, but for being a failed man by embracing the most unmanly type of sex possible.

This leaves open a lot of questions that one suspects the male Roman writers had little interest in. Did women care as much about the status dynamics of sex acts in the same way that men did, given that they were coming from an official position at the bottom of the ranking? Is it possible that Philaenis could, simultaneously, reject the role of fellator--sexually subjugating herself to a man--as part of her personal identity, and yet not consider performing cunnilingus to be a similar (or even worse) subjugation?

The third epigram is addressed to a woman named Bassa. Martial begins by suggesting that she is a virtuous woman since gossip has never associated her with a man, but he then accuses her of “bringing two cunts together” creating the riddle “How can there be adultery with no man present?”

Quod numquam maribus iunctam te, Bassa, uidebam 
quodque tibi moechum fabula nulla dabat,
omne sed officium circa te semper obibat
turba tui sexus, non adeunte uiro,
esse uidebaris, fateor, Lucretia nobis:
at tu, pro facinus, Bassa, fututor eras.
Inter se geminos audes committere cunnos
mentiturque uirum prodigiosa Venus.
Commenta es dignum Thebano aenigmate monstrum,
hic ubi uir non est, ut sit adulterium.  

Because I never saw you joined with men, Bassa,
And because you were never rumored to have an adulterous lover
But all duties around you were performed
By a crowd of your own sex, while no man approached you,
You appeared to be a chaste Lucretia, I confess.
But you, Bassa, such a crime! were a fucker (of women).
You dare to bring twin cunts together
And you feign manhood with your monstrous pussy.
You’ve invented a wonder worthy of the Theban riddle:
Here, where there is no man, yet there is adultery.

What is curious here is that the asymmetry inherent in the official Roman sexual system is absent. Although Bassa is called a fututor using the masculine form of the word for “fucker”, the specific action described doesn’t fit the insertive-receptive directionality. Bassa doesn’t simply bring cunts together, she brings twin cunts together. Two identical genitals. This breaks the system and perhaps Martial is genuinely puzzled as to whether it can be classified as adultery.

If the act doesn’t fit into the system of sexual morals, on what basis can it be condemned? Would it be considered shameful for a Roman woman to enjoy “bringing two cunts together?” For that matter, would it be shameful for a woman to receive cunnilingus from another woman? Would the relative social position of the two women make a difference?

The riddle of Megilla/us

The most complicated and intriguing text comes from Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans. Lucian dates to the mid 2nd century CE and, in himself, represents the multiculturalism of the Roman Empire, being a Syrian who wrote primarily in Greek, taught in Greece, Italy, and Gaul, and briefly held a civil service job in Egypt. He belonged to a rhetorical movement that focused on the declamation of set-pieces and is credited with having developed the dialogue as a humorous art form. His works tended to straddle both satire and humor. Scholars are divided as to whether his use of conventional forms and themes was a sign that he was copying traditional topics that didn’t reflect his own opinions, or whether the use of traditional structures was part of his satirical manipulation, used to reframe unexpected topics.

In the dialogue in question, a courtesan named Leaena is telling her friend Clonarium about a job she was hired for that began simply as entertaining her employers as usual, and then turned into a solicitation for a sexual encounter, which was also a typical outcome. What wasn’t typical was that the couple who hired her--Megilla and Demonassa--were both women. Maybe.

Writing in Greek, Lucian identified Leaena and Clonarium as "hetairai", usually translated "courtesan", but indicating a woman who was not a wife, and who provided intellectual as well as physical companionship (as contrasted with prostitutes who provided only sexual services). A hetaira might technically "sell" her services, but it was framed in the symbolism of courtship and gifts, rather than purchase, and she would typically have only one male client at a time, or perhaps a couple of close friends would share her company. The other key piece of vocabulary here is that one of Leaena’s employers is suggested to be a hetairistria, a word relating to hetaira that is only otherwise found in Plato’s origin-story for sexual attraction, referring to women attracted to women.

From a modern point of view, Megilla clearly self-identifies as a trans man, and though that category isn’t any more clearly accurate than homosexual or heterosexual, I’ll go with it for now and use male pronouns. He asks to be called Megillus and says, "I was born a woman...but I have the mind and desires and everything else of a man." Although Leaena turns coy at discussions of sexual techniques, there are hints that Megillus may use a strap-on ("I have a substitute of my own"). The framing of the encounter thus shifts from a homosocial event (two women hire a heteira to entertain them, just as two men might have done), to homoerotic (the female hosts interact sexually with the heteira), to something more complex (a male/female couple both interact sexually with a woman).

The question remains whether Lucian was accurately (if satirically) portraying a known social reality of his world (and perhaps poking fun at Clonarium for her naiveté) or doing the same but holding up Megillus to ridicule, or portraying an entirely fictional male fantasy about women's sexual encounters and unable to imagine them without the presence of a male-acting figure. As we discussed earlier, Roman writers assumed that in any same-sex encounter between women, one of them must be taking a male role. And yet Demonassa is not portrayed as masculine. If she were, it would undermine the portrayal of Megillus and Demonassa as a male-female couple. Given that she’s not, then no matter how one understands Megillus, there is sex between women going on in the threesome. In short, Lucian's dialogue presages the entire butch/transgender interface of the modern era, with its complexities and ambiguities of identity and presentation.

In the following dialogue, pay attention to the fact that Megillus is said to be from Lesbos which is explicitly noted as a home of tribades.

* * *

[Translation from M. D. MacLeod from the Loeb Classical Library edition of Lucian vol 7 pp.379-83]

Clonarium: We’ve been hearing strange things about you Leaena. They say that Megilla, the rich Lesbian woman, is in love with you just like a man, that you live with each other, and do goodness knows what together. Hullo! Blushing? Tell me if it’s true.

Leaena: Quite true, Clonarium. But I’m ashamed, for it’s unnatural.

Clonarium: In the name of Mother Aphrodite, what’s it all about? What does the woman want? What do you do when you are together? You see, you don’t love me, or you wouldn’t hide such things from me.

Leaena: I love you as much as I love any woman, but she’s terribly like a man.

Clonarium: I don’t understand what you mean, unless she’s a sort of woman for the ladies [in Greek: hetairistria]. They say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women, as though they themselves were men.

Leaena: It’s something like that.

Clonarium: Well, tell me all about it; tell me how she made her first advances to you, how you were persuaded, and what followed.

Laena: She herself and another rich woman, with the same accomplishments, Demonassa from Corinth, were organizing a drinking party and had taken me along to provide them with music. But, when I had finished playing, and it was late and time to turn in and they were drunk, Megilla said, “Come along Laeana, it’s high time we were in bed; you sleep here between us.”

Clonarium: And did you? What happened after that?

Leaena: At first they kissed me like men, not simply bringing their lips to mine, but opening their mouths a little, embracing me, and squeezing my breasts. Demonassa even bit me as she kissed, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Eventually Megilla, being now rather heated, pulled off her wig, which was very realistic and fitted very closely, and revealed the skin of her head which was shaved close, just as on the most energetic of athletes. This sight gave me a shock, but she said,

“Leaena, have you ever seen such a good-looking young fellow?”

“I don’t see one here, Megilla,” said I.

“Don’t make a woman out of me,” said she. “My name is Megillus, and I’ve been married to Demonassa here for ever so long; she’s my wife.”

I laughed at that, Clonarium, and said. “Then, unknown to us, Megillus, you were a man all the time, just as they say Achilles once hid among the girls, and you have everything that a man has, and can play the part of a man to Demonassa?”

“I haven’t got what you mean,” said she. “I don’t need it at all. You’ll find I’ve a much pleasanter method of my own.”

“You’re surely not a hermaphrodite,” said I, “equipped both as a man and a woman, as many people are said to be?” For I still didn’t know, Clonarium, what it was all about.

But she said, “No, Leaena, I’m all man.”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve heard the Boeotian flute-girl Ismenodora, repeating tales she’d heard at home, and telling us how someone at Thebes had turned from woman to man, someone who was also an excellent soothsayer, and was, I think, called Tiresias. That didn’t happen to you, did it?”

“No, Leaena,” she said. “I was born a woman like the rest of you, but I have the mind and the desires and everything else of a man.”

“And do you find these desires enough?” said I.

“If you don’t believe me, Leaena,” said she, “just give me a chance, and you’ll find I’m as good as any man; I have a substitute of my own. Only give me a chance, and you’ll see.”

Well I did, my dear, because she begged so hard, and presented me with a costly necklace and a very fine linen dress. Then I threw my arms around her as through she were a man, and she went to work, kissing me and panting and apparently enjoying herself immensely.

Clonarium: What did she do? How? That’s what I’m most interested to hear.

Leaena: Don’t inquire too closely into the details; they’re not very nice; so, by Aphrodite in heaven, I won’t tell you!

Ancient Celts

When we’re talking about the Roman Empire, we aren’t talking only about the culture of Roman Italy itself, but of a vast sweep of provinces from Brittania to Hispania to Anatolia to Egypt. Rome incorporated those very different cultures to form hybrid societies adapting both local and imperial traditions. Do we have any evidence regarding attitudes toward same-sex relationships in the Roman provinces?

There are a few comments among Greek and Roman writers about the sexual habits of the Celts, suggesting that Celtic men were known to sleep together, one author stating that "the young men will offer themselves to strangers and are insulted if the offer is refused". But I’m hesitant to assume that the observation tells us anything useful about women’s behavior or attitudes toward it.


However in the case of Egypt, we do have a variety of evidence speaking directly to the topic that suggests that sex, love, and even marriage between women was something considered acceptable and perhaps even ordinary in Egypt.

One of the more interesting types of everyday texts from the Classical Roman era were magical spells, either to curse someone, or bless them, or to bind them to a particular course of action. There are several such magical texts from Roman Egypt that contain spells to cause a specific woman to fall in love with--or at least to lust after--another specific woman. The texts give personal details about the target and descriptions of what the user wants to happen.

A papyrus fragment, written in Greek, from the 2nd century CE calls on the gods to “attract and bind this, now, quickly quickly. By her soul and heart attract Sarapias herself.” I’ve omitted some repetitive formulas identifying the participants.

An even more lengthy and repetitive spell is found on a lead tablet from the 3rd or 4th century, again written in Greek. The gods are invoked with lengthy descriptions and names, but the meat of the request is to “inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia with love and affection for Sophia...burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love...force her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving Sophia... [let her] surrender like a slave, giving herself and all her possessions...” amid much formulaic repetition, but always coming back to a demand for “love and affection.”

A tradition of sexual desire between women in Egypt is still being recorded in the early Christian period in 5th century documents from a monastery that recorded a punishment for two women for "running after" other women in "friendship and physical desire". The phrasing "run after [someone] with physical desire" occurs in a number of texts, indicating that it was a regular expression with understood meaning. Yet another passage condemns "a woman among us who will run after younger women, and anoint them and is filled with a passion or is [...missing...] them in a passion of desire and slothfulness and laughter and vain error..."

Marriage between women is another feature associated with Egypt in a number of different sources. Jewish commentaries from the 2nd century, when explaining the reference in Leviticus 18:3 that says “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt” expands on this asking, “And what did they do? A man married a man and a woman a woman, and a man married a woman and her daughter, and a woman was married to two men.” So this isn’t a narrow reference to marriage between women, but one generally discussing non-approved forms of marriage said to exist in Egypt.

As noted previously, the astrologer Claudius Ptolomy of Alexandria, Egypt referred to certain planetary conjunctions leading women to “call their [female] partners lawful wives.” And his near-contemporary and countryman the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, when condemning gender transgression in both men and women, specifically called out, “women [who] behave like men in that women, contrary to nature, are given in marriage and marry [other women].”

And I’ll close with some excerpts from the 2nd century Syrian Greek author Iamblichos, whose long rambling romantic adventure the Babylonaika survives in a summary by a 9th century author, who adds his own commentary on two side characters in the work, Queen Berenike of Egypt and her wife, Mesopotamia. Now it’s clear within the context of the novel that Mesopotamia’s name is taken from the territory, for she has two brothers named Tigris and Euphrates. But it’s equally clear within the context of the story that she is presented as an ordinary woman, not some allegorical figure.

At some future point I may put the entire summary of the Babylonaika on the blog because it’s a delightfully incoherent romantic adventure. But here are the excerpts referring to Bernike and Mesopotamia.

* * *

By way of digression the author relates the history of the temple and the little island, which is formed by the surrounding waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. The priestess of Aphrodite had three children, Euphrates, Tigris, and Mesopotamia, the last, who was born ugly, being changed into a woman so beautiful that three suitors quarrelled for her hand. Bochorus, the most famous judge of the time, was chosen to decide their claims, and the three rivals pleaded their cause. Now Mesopotamia had given one of them the cup from which she drank, had crowned the second with a garland of flowers from her own head, and had kissed the third. Bochorus decided that she belonged to the one whom she had kissed, but this decision only embittered the quarrel, which ended in the death of the rivals by one another's hands.

[And then later...]

Damas arrests the priest of Aphrodite and questions him about Sinonis; the old man is condemned to change his ministry for the office of executioner; the manners and customs relating to this office. Euphrates, whom the priest his father takes for Rhodanes and calls him by this name, is arrested, and his sister Mesopotamia takes to flight. Euphrates is taken before Sacas and questioned about Sinonis, being taken for Rhodanes and examined as such. Sacas sends a messenger to Garmus to inform him that Rhodanes is captured and that Sinonis soon will be. For Euphrates, when questioned in the name of Rhodanes, being obliged to call his sister Mesopotamia by the name of Sinonis, declares that Sinonis fled when she saw him arrested.

[Trust me, it makes a tiny bit more sense in context. The next bit would have been lovely to have in more detail, but all we get is:]

The story of Berenice, daughter of the king of Egypt, of her disgraceful amours, of her intimacy with Mesopotamia, who was afterwards seized by Sacas and, as Sinonis, sent to Garmus with her brother Euphrates. Garmus, hearing from the goldsmith that Sinonis has escaped, orders him to be put to death, and the guards, who had been deputed to watch the pretended Sinonis and to bring her to him, to be buried alive with their women and children.

[The Greek word that is being translated as “intimacy” here is a form of eros, meaning sexual love. Finally we get the passage which explicitly mentions marriage (gamos) and gives us our happily ever after.]

Euphrates and Mesopotamia, the supposed Rhodanes and Sinonis, together with Soraechus and the real Rhodanes are taken before Garmus. Garmus, seeing that Mesopotamia is not Sinonis, delivers her to Zobaras with orders to cut off her head on the banks of the Euphrates, to prevent any one else in future taking the name of Sinonis. But Zobaras, who has already drunk at the fountain of love, is smitten with Mesopotamia; he spares her life and sends her back to Berenice, who had become queen of Egypt after her father's death, and from whom she had been taken.  Berenice is married to Mesopotamia, on whose account Garmus threatens war.

* * *

And that seems like a good place to end the discussion, with the two women reunited and happily married. It may be a fiction, but it’s a Roman fiction and tells us that women in Classical Rome had at least one clear story to tell them such a thing was imaginable.

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Monday, October 22, 2018 - 09:00

I think it isn't a big secret that I have issues with the "strong Foucaultian" position, that is, that sexuality is never an "inherent" characteristic but that sexual identity is entirely shaped by how a particular culture structures sexual categories and their meanings. But conversely, I'm quite convinced of the "weak Foucaultian" position that individuals will tend to channel and understand their inherent emotions and responses through the lens of the prototypes that society offers them. But I've never previously read an analysis of sexuality in classical Roman culture that made me feel like I truly understood what that meant.

Like so many historical studies (and one of the major defects in Foucault's theories), this book works almost entirely through the male gaze and through not merely male-centered, but male-dominated cultural understandings. While Williams acknowledges that lack in his sources, I think he could have gone further in interrogating the usefulness of the available Roman texts for saying anything useful about how Roman women understood their own sexuality. In working on this month's theme, I've run across references to some other articles that take up that challenge, such as an article by Sarah Levin-Richardson on sexual graffiti expressed in a woman's point of view (and argued by her to be written by women). It concerns me that the very few detailed texts exploring the theme of sex between women risk either being over-generalized or used to erase the very concept of sex between Roman women due to the ambiguities of the texts and the lack of multiple angles on the topic.

For example, two of Martial's viciously satirical epigrams and one of Lucian's similarly satirical dialogs of the courtesans form the core of unarguable depictions of sexual activity between women. All three of them adopt the Roman sexual system in viewing any sexual agency by a woman as making her "masculine". Within our contemporary discourse on gender and sexuality, there is a certain pressure to accept this depiction at face value and interpret Bassa, Philaenis, and Megilla/us as transgender men (particularly in the last case). And that to question that interpretation is to erase historic trans identity. But when examined in the context of the larger Roman sexual system, we see that it is simply not possible for someone with a stake in that system (which covers pretty much all the upper class literate men whose texts have survived) to conceive of active female sexuality as being other than masculine. In the same way that they could not conceive of "passive" male sexuality as being other than feminine. But even those scholars arguing that "passive" Roman men cannot reasonably be categorized as "homosexual" in modern terms are not arguing that they were all, instead, trans women, even though philosophical arguments like the one mythologized by Phaedrus could certainly be interpreted that way. (Some, of course, may have been, in the context of modern definitions.) Does it then make sense to accept the male-framed Roman cultural understanding that, in any sexual encounter of biologically female persons, one of them is, by definition, taking a male role, and therefore should be understood within a modern context as being a trans man? From a scholarly viewpoint, neither modern definition has validity, but withing popular culture, the two framings are set up as mutually exclusive.

In looking for an understanding of how Roman women might have understood sexual acts between women, we need to challenge the framings and interpretations put on them, not only by modern identity movements, but by their own male contemporaries. Was Martial's Philaenis simply absurdly inconsistent in her masculinized sexuality, in that she followed male sexual rules in everything except for performing cunnilingus? Or was she following a a different set of principles in which refusing to be a receptive partner for penetrative sex coexisted happily with performing oral sex on women? Was Megilla/us Roman culture's best example of a trans man? Or was that hyper-masculine social presentation the only cultural model offered that fit their desires and experiences? (And we shouldn't overlook Demonassa, also mentioned in the dialog, who also enjoys the sexual encounter with the courtesan without being masculinized in the description.)

Even with these flaws regarding coverage of female issues, Williams is the first book on this topic I've read that led me to begin to grasp how truly different the Roman understanding of sexual roles was, and how much of that understanding still lingers in Western culture today under the surface.

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Full citation: 

Williams, Craig A. 2010. Roman Homosexuality. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-538874-9

Williams ironically acknowledges that part of his entire program is to demonstrate that “Roman homosexuality” is an oxymoron, but that this can only be explained by taking an in-depth look at the topics and evidence that superficially appear to define that very topic. The rule of thumb holds true that any academic study written by a man that has the word “homosexuality” in the title will have only minimal passing reference to female homosexuality, but in this case that’s an inevitable result of the nature, focus, and authorship of the available textual sources. But in this case, more to the point, it’s because the “Roman sexual system” itself assumes the primacy of the dominant, penetrative man and defines all other persons and actions in relation to that concept. The very notion of sex with no man or male-analog present is nonsensical within the normative structures of classical Roman sexuality. But for that very reason, a consideration of the place of women’s relations with that system (as with a consideration of men who don’t fit the dominant paradigm) helps find the cracks and inconsistencies of the system.


This book was originally published in 1999 and has been reivised and updated in this 2010 edition. It takes a similarly broad-based approach to that Dover (1978) did for Greek homosexuality. Williams notes that female same-sex desire is “not a central theme in [this] book” which is something of an understatement. But an understanding of how sexual relations between men in classical Rome fail to align with modern concepts of homosexuality also sheds light on ways in which relations between women might have been viewed.

This study interrogates the accepted premise of Roman relations between men, i.e., that the strict alignment of active and passive roles with status differences of the participants was considered a moral issue. That “passive” partners were universally ridiculed or despised. One key question is how sexual status hierarchies between men were distinguished from “heterosexual” relations (just as much a misnomer as homosexual in this context) in which the premise was that women are universally lower in status than men. Williams points out that textual data indicates that Roman men were not encouraged to evaluate or judge sex acts based on the genders involved, except in the case of acts between women which stood outside the expected paradigms. He challenges whether the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” have any historical meaning when applied to classical Rome.

In this analysis, it’s important to understand the contextual meaning of words like stuprum (debauchery, a shameful act), pudicitia (chastity, modesty), cinaedus (man who takes a passive role in sex). For that reason, the Latin words are used in this book to avoid adding irrelevant shades of meaning, and English terms will be used only as abstractions and not to talk about historic individuals. Williams takes a Foucaultian position that the categories “heterosexual”, “bisexual”, and “homosexual” and the impulse to assign all people to them is specific to contemporary Western culture, and that even in Western culture something identifiable as [male] homosexual identity did not emerged until fairly late, e.g., the 17th century in England.

[Note: It is a general flaw in Foucault’s work that it is based almost entirely on studying male relations, with a blithe and tacit assumption that women’s experiences were either parallel or of no particular importance.]

This drive to categorize all persons into a homo/hetero binary (and he considers “bisexual” to be “reserved for intractable cases”) is parallel to categorizing all persons into a gender binary. In many cultures, the central prototype [my phrase] for “man” may have sex with specific classes of assigned-male persons [again, my phrase], but if those “permitted partners” are contextually defined as “not members of the central prototype for man” then in what sense is the relationship homosexual as opposed to representing a type of heterosexuality within a multi-gender system?

And what about relations between women? Ovid’s Metamorphoses includes many stories that glorify romantic and sexual relations between men, but in the tale of Iphis and Ianthe, Iphis is given a speech about how impossible and unnatural love between women is. [Note: But in all these we are inevitably working through the male gaze. Ovid himself discusses his desire for woman and for “boys” but he is not capable of experiencing desire for a woman as a woman. So is his claim of “impossibility” a genuine reflection of Roman society, or simply a personal failure of imagination--and of a specifically male imagination? When considering what sort of evidence Ovid and other male writers offer about Roman reality--i.e., that love between women necessarily involves a butch-femme dynamic with transgender implications--how is that different from 20th century heteronormative expectations of lesbian relationships that one partner must “be the man”? And, as we’ll see, on a symbolic and rhetorical level, Roman sexual systems always considered the “passive” partner in an act to be feminized, regardless of their biological sex.]

This book covers texts from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE and includes all genres: epigrams, graffiti, love poetry, rhetoric. Nearly all of it was written by men for a male readership and reflects a male understanding and experience of the world. These texts show the messy contradictions in relations between men because they focus on the whole range of experience and poke at those cases that don’t appear to fit the paradigm. But the nature of the texts means that there is not a similar impetus to explore how relations between women challenged the paradigm (because women’s sexual deviations did not call into question male status and privilege). Examining a wide variety of genres examines not only the lived experiences of Romans, but how those experiences were framed in texts and even how authors framed their own experiences and acts, either via poetic personae or for rhetorical purposes.

Chapter 1: Roman Traditions - no notes

Chapter 2: Greece and Rome

Even within the limited temporal scope, the possibility should be considered that there was change over time in sexual attitudes or practices. Roman texts portrayed a major wave of Greek influence around the 2nd century BCE with regard to pederasty (i.e., age-differentiated relationships between men with the older partner taking the “dominant” role), which in Greek culture was carried out openly and celebrated. But Roman texts show no actual change in the accepted sexual codes during the transition from the Republic to the Empire, only an increase in concerns and accusations that men whose social status required them to take only the active role were instead taking passive parts. Even so, there’s no clear evidence for a change in behavior, only the degree of rhetoric about it.

Chapter 3: The Concept of Stuprum

The official Roman sexual system was organized around penetrative acts and the orifice that was being penetrated (vagina, anus, mouth). The only exception to this penis-oriented system was cunnilingus, which was heavily stigmatized (and was considered to be a penetration of the mouth by the cunnus). The texts are unconcerned with non-penetrative sex acts (having defined oral sex as “penetrative” of the mouth) such as mutual masturbation, as well as ignoring non-sexual and emotion-based life partnerships.

Williams distills down three “rules” for the sexual behavior of the Roman vir, the high-status man. 1) He must only be the penetrator in sex, never penetrated; 2) Other than his lawful wife, he must never engage in sex with a member of the Roman citizen class, whether male or female; 3) The physical ideal for a partner is smooth and youthful. How do these rules apply to women of the same class? #1 is irrelevant, the Roman sexual system places women at the other end of the pole: never penetrating, available in every way for penetration. Rule #2 has some odd quirks. In theory, the citizen-class Roman woman should never engage in sex with anyone but her husband. But when you get to “degrees of badness” it’s worse for her to have sex with a non-citizen than a citizen. It’s unclear how #3 would apply, since we don’t have a significant body of evidence on what women were expected to consider attractive.

Chapter 4: Effeminacy and Masculinity

Other characteristics than simply playing a “passive” role in sex could be associated with effeminacy. The evaluation was not necessarily related to one’s sexual partner. “Feminine” was defined in opposition to accepted male virtues, not in relation to feminine virtues. So something could “feminize” a man that wouldn’t be considered virtuous in a woman. This included a concern with physical appearance and grooming, “softness” in general, walking delicately, particular ways of talking, wearing loose colorful clothing, using perfume, curling the hair, depilation, “foreign” luxuries, fine dining and drunkenness, excess emotional display, uncontrolled lust (of any type). Similarly, a man was “feminized” by performing cunnilingus without that implying that it was acceptable for women to perform oral sex on each other. It was the framing of oral sex as a “receptive/passive” role that aligned it with femininity.

What emerges in literature however is a clear thread of “counter-culture” of men rejecting  or downplaying these rules by embracing otherwise deprecated behaviors and roles. [Note: what we don’t have to the same extent -- because that body of literature is unconcerned with women -- is the same sort of evidence for women rejecting the Roman sexual system, even if only symbolically in writing.]

Chapter 5: Sexual Roles and Identities

[Note: In filtering for information even vaguely relevant to f/f contexts, I’m going to spend a lot of time talking about oral sex here -- not necessarily because this was the primary form of sexual interaction between Roman women, but because it was the act that had implications within the “official Roman sexual system” so it’s the one that men wrote about.]

The basic Roman sexual system can be understood as a matrix with one scale for insertive/receptive and another scale for the orifice involved with “higher status” falling higher and to the left in the table. (Williams uses “insertive” and “receptive” rather than “active” and “passive”.) Obviously, the acts default to assuming the presence of a penis. The verbs (from which other vocabulary is derived) are as follows:

Vaginal - (insertive) futuere; (receptive) crisare (referring to moving the body in response)
Anal - (insertive) pedicare; (receptive) cevere (referring to moving the body in response)
Oral -(insertive) irrumare; (receptive) fellare

The corresponding nouns get somewhat complicated by the question of gender.

Vaginal - (insertive) fututor (m), fututrix (f); (receptive) woman (no special term needed)
Anal - (insertive) pedicator (m, not sure if any f. examples); (receptive) pathicus, cinaedus* (m), (no clear female equialent, though pathica may be used but is not necessarily specific to this act)
Oral - (insertive) irrumator (m, no f. equivalent); (receptive)  fellator (m), fellatrix (f), cunnilinctor** (m, the f. would be cunnilinctrix but I don’t know that it occurs)
*cinaedus isn’t actually specific to this sexual role, but rather means “a man who doesn’t live up to the expectations of a vir.
**This is, of course, the exception to the assumption that there is a penis involved somewhere in the act.

The focus by male authors on penetration means that even when sex between women is mentioned, the question is “who penetrated whom?” often with the assumption of a dildo being used. Oral sex is something of an anomaly, but the framework for oral sex can be seen for fellatio which is still classified and treated as a penetrative act. The problematic position of cunnilingus in Roman texts is in part because of the inability to fit it neatly into a penetrative frame. Looking at the overall system, we can make sense of how oral sex was treated.

In description and especially self-description, the Latin word vir (man) emphasized a man who adhered to the official code and rules of Roman masculinity. Thus we can make sense of Martial’s epigram on Bassa, which frames her as behaving as a man (vir) by the simple act of engaging in sex with women. Or rather, that her genitals (venus) “falsely plays the man (vir)”. This implies penetration -- the defining characteristic of a vir. Considering the Roman sexual system as a penetrative/insertive system rather than an active-passive system helps in understanding. Lingo (licking) didn’t count as “penetration” no matter who did it, and despite the fact that it might be thought of as more “active” than the person experiencing the act. Even if only by analogy, the mouth was considered a receptive orifice. Thus, even if Bassa is having oral sex performed on her by a woman, being the recipient of the act inherently masculinizes her.

The default expectation was that a man might have preferences for particular sex acts, but it was not expected for him to prefer a particular gender as a partner. It was as unusual for a man to exclusively prefer female partners as for him to exclusively prefer male partners. Within this framework, all manner of personal preferences were recognized and even considered innate, but they were not considered to constitute some sort of personal identity in the same way that alignment on the insertive/receptive scale did.

Williams argues against viewing these preferences as “orientations” in the modern sense, but more equivalent to a preference for a particular body type or feature like hair color. A man might prefer blondes, but that doesn’t mean that all people can be categorized in terms of which hair color they’re “oriented towards.” So while Williams dismisses the claim by writers such as Boswell that descriptions of personal preference of this type are evidence of “sexual orientation” as we understand it, he grants that classical authors recognized the concept of an innate preference for certain types of sexual partners and certain types of sex acts.

Laws such as the Lex Scantinia, which touched on matters of sexual status and offense, were rarely actually invoked and had very limited scope regarding personal behavior, as long as stuprum was not inflicted on a freeborn Roman man or woman.

With regard to individual sexual preferences, it was implied that men who were known to be fellators (i.e., who habitually took the receptive role in oral sex with other men) were also likely to perform cunnilingus on women. This was considered even less reputable than accepting anal penetration. Performing oral sex of any type was considered “unmanly.” Romans considered oral sex to “foul” the mouth, and there are comments that a person who performs oral sex should not be kissed or share drinking vessels, or should wash their mouth out. The topic is discussed in the language of “impurity.”

Most textual references to oral sex are to fellatio (either m/m or m/f). Men who performed cunnilingus were the subject of as much or more stigma than a fellator. (According to the system, being on the receptive side of a sex act with a woman was more degrading than from a man because it inverted the assumed status relationship even more.) Oral sex was not treated as a mutual exchange between lovers. The poet Martial wrote a poem about a sexually eager female lover who agreed to accept all types of penetration from him but only if he would return the favor with cunnilingus, but he refused in disgust.

All of this brings us to Martial’s epigram on Philaenis, which frames her sexual activity in masculine terms. She penetrates boys and girls, she exercises at the wrestling school, she eats and drinks excessively [though note that excessive eating and drinking in a man would be “unmanly”]. She refuses to perform fellatio because it’s “unmanly” but Martial’s punchline is that she “thinks it manly to perform cunnilingus on girls.” The satire here is focusing on her upside down values. She, a woman, does all these masculine things, but fails because she embraces the most unmanly act of all. A man performing cunnilingus is framed as “submitting” to the woman.

[Note: This leaves open a lot of questions that one suspects the male Roman writers had no interest in. Would it be shameful for a free Roman woman to receive cunnilingus from an unfree or lower status woman? Did women care as much about the status dynamics of sex acts in the same way that men did, given that they were coming from an official position at the bottom of the ranking? Is it possible that Philaenis could, simultaneously, reject the role of fellator--sexually subjugating herself to a man--as part of her personal identity, and yet not consider performing cunnilingus to be a similar (or even worse) subjugation?]

Williams suggests interpreting the cinaedus (i.e., a man who habitually takes the receptive role in anal sex or in some other way goes against the expectations of virility) as a gender category rather than a sexual orientation. This is illustrated by the fable related by Phaedrus about how, when Prometheus was creating human beings, he drunkenly attached sexual organs to the wrong bodies in some cases. Thus the cinaedus was created by attaching a penis to a “female” body while the tribas was created by attaching a vagina to a “male” body. That is, their behavior is viewed as resulting from a type of gender dysphoria [my term] within an obligatorily heteronormative system. [Note: This must be distinguished from a theory of transgender identity as it assumes a fixed relationship of gender identity and preferred sex acts.] This system assumes that the partner of the cinaedus and the tribas are behaving “normally” in accordance with the sexual desires that their bodies dictate. This theory is echoed by the 5th century medical writer Caelius Aurelianus who suggests that molles (another term for cinaedus) and tribades also experience an excess of lust, which leads to other sexual vices besides taking the “wrong” role in insertive sex. He writes:

nam sicut feminae tribades appellatae, quod utramque venerem exerceant, mulieribus magis quam viris misceri festinant et easdem inidentia paene virili sectantur...

“Just as those women called ‘tribades’--because they engage in both kinds of sexual practice--seek intercourse with women more than with men and pursue women with almost a man’s jealousy...”

By this definition, a tribade might just as easily choose a passive man as her sexual partner. Her identity comes, not from the nature of her sexual partner (just as men’s nature is not determined by the gender of their sexual partner), but from the nature of the acts she desires to perform with them and the fact of taking the active role. Thus, Seneca describes masculine women as “drinking to excess and penetrating men” (apparently unconcerned with what they might be doing with women).

[Note: One fall-out from this understanding that I have seen in some writings on Roman sexuality is that it becomes possible to doubt the very existence of sexual acts between women unless the text is very explicit about it. This occurs in Adams’ The Latin Sexual Vocabulary where he dismisses same-sex interpretations of terms for sexually active women unless no other possible interpretation is available. This is something of a conundrum: within the context of the above understanding of the Roman sexual system, it’s true that terms like “tribas” or “cunnilinctor” or even “fututrix” do not automatically imply sex acts between women. But by the very same argument, there’s no reason why the possibility of a female partner should be dismissed. The flaw in Adams is not that he points out that a tribas might have a male partner, but that he requires a higher standard of proof that she might have a female one.]

Williams considers interpretations of the evidence that Rome had a “subculture” of male-male relations equivalent, for example, to the molly houses of 18th century England. These interpretations are based on references to men meeting in certain locations for sex, to particular fashions or habits associated with cinaedi, and so forth. But he argues that to have a subculture, you need to have people identifying as sharing an identity, and a social context where their interactions could not otherwise be engaged in freely or openly. This wasn’t the case in Rome. Rather than a "subculture" of male-male relations, his position is that male-male relations were simply part of the default culture.

Afterword to the Second Edition

Williams mentions as new data a Pompeii wall painting that Clarke (1998) thinks may represent sex between women. The image is part of a series depicting deprecated sexual practices.

Appendix 1: The Rhetoric of Nature

One of the contributions to later rhetoric about sexual morality comes from Roman texts about the concept of things being “according to Nature” or “against Nature”. Natura expresses not only what people believed existed but also how they believed they should be. Thus, the simple existence of something or some practice was not a defense against it being identified as “against nature.”

Seneca defines “vice” as anything that is “against nature” but includes clearly cultural practices among “nature”. But other authors--whether seriously or in satire--point out the arbitrary or ambiguous definitions of “nature.” For example, one could say that the design of an anus indicates that it’s “natural” for it to be penetrated.

Cultural fables like the one by Phaedrus about Prometheus assumes that molles and tribades have always been part of the human race, and therefore could reasonably be included in Natura. Seeking “nature” in the behavior of animals, we see Ovid’s speech given to Iphis where she claims [erroneously, as it happens] that no where among animals does a female desire a female. But at the same time, Ovid never questions the “natural” desire of men for boys.

Appendix 2: Marriage between Males

How are we to interpret various references in classical texts to marriages between men, especially as these are usually brought up in the context of political satire or personal attacks? Williams gives some credence to the practice of marriage between men, although in some cases the references were probably satirical. It appears that such marriages would not be entered into the official registry (but neither were all marriages between men and women). Marriages between men didn’t fit into the formal structures of Roman marriage because those structures were concerned with the begetting of legitimate freeborn children. Martial wrote a number of satires about “male brides” where the “bride” is made an object of scorn, but the marriage itself is not. Williams concludes that such marriages happened and the men considered themselves spouses, but the relationship was treated as anomalous and always involved treating one partner as being feminized by the relationship.

Appendix 3: A Note on the Sources -- no notes

Appendix 4: Pompeiian Graffiti in Context

Williams notes that among the wide variety of sexual “advertisements” in this genre, the only combination not attested is a woman unambiguously selling sexual services to another woman. However, there are references to a woman identified (possibly by herself) as a fututrix (a woman who fucks) which--by the normal understanding of the word--would imply a female receptive partner. (See discussion in Adams 1982.)

Time period: 
Saturday, October 20, 2018 - 11:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 27c - Sappho: The Translations (reprised) - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/10/20 - listen here)

Scheduling gets tricky sometimes, and I found myself putting together the October podcasts without an author guest. Rather than scramble and try to pull someone in at the last minute, I decided instead to reprise the two episodes I did on Sappho back in the first year of the podcast. They’ve been among my most popular shows. It also gives me an excuse to finally get the transcripts for these two episodes posted. Last week, you heard what we know about the historic Sappho and her times, as well as how her story was changed and mythologized across the ages. This week, you’ll hear a tour through translations of Sappho’s most complete works in different eras, as well as poems inspired by the style and sensibility of her poetry. I hope you’ll enjoy these shows, either as a new listener or returning to some favorite episodes.

* * *

One of the bright spots in the history of lesbian desire in history and literature is the ancient Greek poet Sappho. When you think about the erasure of women from history and the even greater erasure of queer sexuality, it’s so amazing that we have an icon like Sappho whose presence and genius were so powerful that they could only be dimmed and distorted and not entirely erased.

I like to try to do some sort of special feature in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to celebrate Pride Month. This time I’ve been covering several books about Sappho from my to-do list, and have bracketed the month with two special podcasts.

The first one was about the historic Sappho and the beginnings of the myths that ancient Greek and Roman writers created about her.

This time we’ll look at the legacy of Sappho from the Middle Ages up through the 19th century. The various images people had of her. How people used her as a symbol. And the way those images affected how her poetry was translated into everyday languages, and how poets used her themes and imagery in their own work.

Sappho lived in the 7th century BC and it’s a testament to her reputation among other classical writers that we know anything about her at all. Early references to her works indicate that her poetry was collected into 8 volumes, representing perhaps 10 thousand lines of verse, of which 650 lines survive. That’s a small fraction, even considering that new fragments of her poetry are still being discovered today. One of the largest modern discoveries was on scraps of papyrus excavated from a rubbish dump in Oxyrhynchus Egypt at the end of the 19th century.

But for much of history before that, the only way that Sappho’s poems survived was when they were quoted by other authors--sometimes only a few words or a line, used to illustrate some point of poetics or grammar, or simply to gain the cachet of quoting the renowned poet. When literature was disseminated only by laboriously writing each copy out by hand, to cease to be re-copied was to be forgotten. And some time around the 6th or 7th century AD, the full collections of Sappho’s work stopped being of interest to copyists, and thus never made the transition from papyrus scrolls to parchment books, except second-hand when quoted by others.

Only one complete poem survives: her Ode to the goddess Aphrodite, where she begs Aphrodite to help her win the love of a woman who spurns her. But another nearly-complete song, known as “Fragment 31”, is the one that most caught the imagination of translators and imitators. The following translations are from Jane McIntosh Snyder’s book Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho and are literal renderings of the original meaning, rather than being works of poetry in themselves. They will serve as a foundation for the other versions I’ll be presenting. In fragment #1, known as the Ode to Aphrodite, Sappho names herself as the speaker and begs the goddess Aphrodite for aid in her romantic disappointment.

#1 Ode to Aphrodite

O immortal Aphrodite of the many-colored throne,
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I beseech you,
do not overwhelm me in my heart
with anguish and pain, O Mistress

But come hither, if ever at another time
hearing my cries from afar
you heeded them, and leaving the home of your father
came, yoking your golden

Chariot: beautiful, swift sparrows
drew you above the black earth
whirling their wings thick and fast,
from heaven’s ether through mid-air.

Suddenly they had arrived; but you, O Blessed Lady,
with a smile on your immortal face,
asked what I had suffered again and
why I was calling again

And what I was most wanting to happen for me
in my frenzied heart: “Whom again shall I persuade
to come back into friendship with you? Who,
O Sappho, does you injustice?

“For if indeed she flees, soon will she pursue,
and though she receives not your gifts, she will give them,
and if she loves not now, soon she will love,
even against her will.”

Come to me now also, release me from
harsh cares; accomplish as many things as my heart desires
to accomplish; and you yourself
be my fellow soldier.

The second poem, fragment 31, is incomplete at the end, but enough survives that it has been a favorite for translation and imitation, expressing the physical experience of desire and jealousy.

#31 He seems as a god to me

He seems to me to be like the gods
--whatever man sits opposite you
and close by hears you
talking sweetly

And laughing charmingly; which
makes the heart within my breast take flight;
for the instant I look upon you, I cannot anymore
speak one word,

But in silence my tongue is broken, a fine
fire at once runs under my skin,
with my eyes I see not one thing, my ears

Cold sweat covers me, trembling
seizes my whole body, I am more moist than grass;
I seem to be little short
of dying...

But all must be ventured...

To understand the context of how Sappho’s poetry was understood and translated, we need to have a sense of how Sappho herself was viewed in later ages.

Classical writers like Ovid and some medieval writers held Sappho up as a model of education and erudition. Giovanni Bocaccio (who is most famous for his Decameron) wrote a celebration of famous (and some infamous) women that included her. And Christine de Pisan includes Sappho among the intellectual women praised in her work The City of Ladies.

In parallel with her reputation as a poet, Sappho was also associated with sex between women, whether as an example of a woman with lesbian desires, or to refute that accusation.

The Italian writer Bartolommeo della Rocca, writing around 1500, uses Sappho as an example of “morally offensive lust” between women.

In the mid 16th century, Italian writer Agnolo Firenzuola, when writing of the love that women could have for each other said, “Some love each other’s beauty in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as in ancient times Sappho from Lesbos, and in our own times in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana. This type of woman by nature spurns marriage and flees from intimate conversation with men.”

Around the same date, the Swiss encyclopedist Theodor Zwinger included a list of Sappho’s female lovers in his entry for “tribades”.

The French aristocratic gossip-monger Brantôme, writing around 1600, was more interested in Sappho as an early proponent of what he called “donna con donna” -- woman with woman--than as a poet. Citing Roman authors he notes, “It is said that Sappho of Lesbos was a very good mistress in this art. Indeed, they say she invented it, and that the ladies of Lesbos have imitated her in this since and continued down to today. As Lucian says, such women are women of Lesbos, who will not tolerate men, but approach other women as men themselves do.”

During the 16th and 17th centuries, an increasing desire to distinguish acceptable forms of romantic attraction between women, versus unacceptably physical forms, led to a divergence between the images of Sappho as romantic poet and Sappho as unnatural deviant. This conflict plays out repeatedly over the following centuries with Sappho’s admirers feeling they needed to de-sexualize her work and life, and her detractors using the example of her fabled sexuality to attack learned women of their own time as inherently deviant.

Both sides used the classical poem “Sappho to Phaon” --now associated with Ovid, but at the time considered to have been written by Sappho herself--as evidence either of her repudiating the love of women, or of the tragic fate of one who had previously dared to embrace it. Translations of this poem appeared somewhat earlier than those of Sappho’s own poetry, as in Thomas Heywood’s 1624 edition.

Some responded to the conflict between the poetic and sexual Sapphos by inventing a second Sappho, to whom the objectionable material could be attributed. Others dealt with the dilemma by interpreting her poems as being written from a fictional masculine point of view. Male poets sometimes used Sappho as an alter ego, expressing their own heterosexual desire for women through her voice.

It is in this context that the renewed interest in Sappho’s poetry (as opposed to her personal life) led to publication, translation, and imitation of her works. Sappho’s poetry itself had previously only accessible to those who could read the original Greek--as well as having access to the older manuscripts that included it. In the mid 16th century, her work began being collected up and published either in the original Greek or with Latin translations.  Perhaps the earliest of these is the 1556 publication by Henri Estienne, which includes poems 1 and 31. Following soon after, were translations into everyday language.  But even before vernacular translations appeared, poets were referencing Sappho’s works and loves in their own poetry.

English poet John Donne, in 1600, wrote an original poem in Sappho’s voice entitled “Sappho to Philaenis” which acknowledges her homoeroticism and treats it positively.

French poet Anne de Rohan was clearly familiar with Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, and in her 1617 poem “On a lady named beloved” makes direct allusion to fragment 31 in a work that is clearly a love poem from one woman to another. She would have had access to Sappho’s works via publications such as those mentioned. You can see the echoes of Sappho’s themes in this English translation of de Rohan’s poem, though it is not a direct counterpart to a specific poem:

Beauty, it would be a great wrong,
If, for your worthy graces,
I had been dealt the lover’s fate;
For anyone but you, my dear Beloved,

All the Olympic torches,
Illuminated in their course,
Are not lovelier ornaments
Than the eyes of my beautiful Beloved.

Cupid, delighted with those eyes,
His right hand armed with an arrow
Shot into my troubled heart
The ardent desire to love my Beloved.

I know not whether they be heavens or gods
Whose power from me is hidden
And compels me, both near and far,
To die so as to love my Beloved.

To see them, they seem like the heavens,
Of azure color are they,
But by their effects they’re like gods,
Forcing me yet to love that Beloved.

For me, then, they’re both heavens and gods,
Because of their hidden power
And luminous appearance,
For I hold nothing dearer than my Beloved.

Anne Dacier’s French edition of Sappho’s work published in 1681 was important for the spread of familiarity with Sappho’s work thoughout Europe. However Dacier considered the homoerotic interpretation of Sappho to be slander, in her edition, Sappho’s fragments are reinterpreted to create a virtual male figure around whom Sappho’s life revolves.

Slightly earlier than Dacier, in 1652, the English translator John Hall included a version of fragment 31 in his edition of the classical Greek poetic manual that it is quoted in. Perhaps it is this context that inspired his choice of poetic meter. Unlike many translations, he retains the final surviving line that shows the incomplete nature of what we have.

Fragment 31 (John Hall)

He that sits next to thee now and hears
Thy charming voice, to me appears
Beauteous as any deity
That rules the sky

How did his pleasing glances dart
Sweet langors to my ravish’d heart
At the first sight though so prevailed
That my voice fail’d

I’m speechles, fev’rish, fires assail
My fainting flesh, my sight doth fail
Whilst to my restless mind my ears
Still hum new fears.

Cold sweats and tremblings so invade
That like a wither’d flower I fade
So that my life being almost lost,
I seem a ghost

Yet since I’m wretched must I dare...

17th century English poet Katherine Phillips was compared to Sappho by her friends. Although the intention may have been simply to praise Phillips’ poetry, the two bodies of work share the characteristic of using the structures and tropes of heterosexual love poetry in contexts where both the lover and beloved are unmistakably female.

Alexander Pope, perhaps best known for his mock-heroic poem “The Rape of the Lock”, turned his translating talents in 1712, not to Sappho’s work itself, but to Ovid’s poem “Sappho to Phaon”. Unlike some other translations of this work, Pope’s  version includes the acknowledgement that Sappho did originally love women--a topic that others had simply glossed over in translating the poem, turning Sappho entirely heterosexual.

The early 18th century English writer and politician Joseph Addison wrote a number of works inspired by classical authors. He wasn’t as proficient in Greek as Anne Dacier had been with her French edition. In 1735, Addison translated a number of Sappho’s works into rather forgettable rhymed couplets, including Fragment 31 “Happy as a god is he”. The first-person voice of the poem, combined with an absence of any specific reference to the person addressed (and the lack of grammatical gender markers in English) mean that little trace of homoerotic sentiment remains.

Fragment 31 (Joseph Addison)

Happy as a God is he,
That fond Youth, who plac’d by thee
Hears and sees thee sweetly gay,
Talk and smile his Soul away.

That it was alarm’d my breast,
And depriv’ed my heart of rest
For in speechless Raptures toss’d
While I gaz’d my voice was lost.

The soft Fire with flowing rein,
Glided swift through ev’ry vein
Darkness o’er my eyelids hung
In my ears faint murmurs rung

Chilling damps my limbs bedew’d
Gentle tremors thrill’d my blood
Life from my pale cheeks retir’d
Breathless, I almost expir’d

Some somewhat more poetic--if less faithful--versions were published by Ambrose Philips in 1748 including the Hymn to Aphrodite (Fragment 1), and Fragment 31. In The first, Philips had changed to gender of Sappho’s beloved to male.

Fragment 1 (Ambrose Philips)

O Venus, beauty of the skies,
To whom a thousand temples rise,
Gayly false in gentle smiles,
Full of love-perplexing wiles, ⁠
O goddess! from my heart remove
The wasting cares and pains of love.

If ever thou hast kindly hear'd
A song in soft distress prefer'd, ⁠
Propitious to my tuneful vow,
O gentle goddess! hear me now.
Descend thou bright, immortal, guest,
In all thy radiant charms confess'd. ⁠

Thou once didst leave almighty Jove,
And all the golden roofs above:
The car thy wanton sparrows drew;
Hov'ring in air they lightly flew; ⁠
As to my bower they wing'd their way,
I saw their quiv'ring pinions play.

The birds dismiss'd (while you remain)
Bore back their empty car again: ⁠
Then you, with looks divinely mild,
In ev'ry heav'nly feature smil'd,
And ask'd, what new complaints I made,
And why I call'd you to my aid? ⁠

What frenzy in my bosom rag'd,
And by what care to be asswag'd?
What gentle youth I would allure,
Whom in my artful toils secure? ⁠
Who does thy tender heart subdue,
Tell me, my Sappho, tell me who?

Tho now he shuns thy longing arms,
He soon shall court thy slighted charms; ⁠
Tho now thy offerings he despise,
He soon to thee shall sacrifice;
Tho now he freez, he soon shall burn,
And be thy victim in his turn. ⁠

Celestial visitant, once more
Thy needful presence I implore!
In pity come and ease my grief,
Bring my distemper'd soul relief: ⁠
Favour thy suppliant's hidden fires, 
And give me all my heart desires.

In Philips’ translation of fragment 31, there is no need to make pronoun changes, but a subtle shift in the emphasis of the poem can make it appear that the speaker’s love-sickness is caused by the man referenced in the first line. Alternately, the absence of an identification for the poem’s speaker leaves one free to imagine it in the male translator’s voice.

Fragment 31 (Ambrose Philips)

Bless’d as the immortal gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee all the while
Softly speak and sweetly smile. ⁠

'Twas this depriv'd my soul of rest,
And rais'd such tumults in my breast;
For while I gaz'd, in transport toss'd,
My breath was gone, my voice was lost. ⁠

My bosom glow'd; the subtle flame
Ran quick through all my vital frame;
O'er my dim eyes a darkness hung,
My ears with hollow murmurs rung. ⁠

In dewy damps my limbs were chill'd,
My blood with gentle horrors thrill'd;
My feeble pulse forgot to play,
I fainted, sunk, and dy'd away. ⁠

Despite the best efforts of these gender-swapped translations, knowledge about Sappho’s work and reputation provided a “conceptual community” for women who loved women in the 18th century. The terms “lesbian” and “sapphic” were coming into common use in a sexual sense, and even superficially innocent references to the poet could be used as a sort of secret password to refer to lesbian desire.

For intellectual and literary women of the time, there was a complication. In addition to her sexual reputation, Sappho stood in for the idea of intellectual and literary women in general. So it sometimes happened that female scholars, even more than male ones, found themselves straining to discount the “taint” of lesbianism for the most famous Lesbian.

Sappho’s mere existence entered into the tension between several framings of same-sex passions. One position othered lesbianism by placing it elsewhere in space or time: in ancient Greece, or in foreign countries. Another view saw lesbianism as a brand new decadent phenomenon. A sort of “kids these days” approach. The classical Sappho could be used to imply lesbianism was something of the past, no longer practiced, and perhaps conceptually divorced from affections between 18th century women. But those educated enough to have access to literature of the previous century, such as John Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” (1633) or Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies would find it harder to dismiss lesbianism as a longstanding tradition.

It was during this era that accusations of lesbianism became a regular part of social and political attacks on prominent women. Sappho was a useful symbol to use in such attacks that would carry a weight of symbolism with an economy of reference. An anonymous poet in 1735 wrote a long mock-heroic poem entitled “The Sappho-an” satirically attributing to Sappho the origin of lesbianism in general and certain sexual practices in particular.

In the 19th century, the academic approach to Sappho’s poetry might be summed up by the opinion of Henry Thornton Wharton, whose 1887 edition of Sappho’s work attempted to produce a comprehensive bibliography of published editions starting in the mid-16th century, as well as materials relating to her life. Wharton discusses the passion and skill of Sappho’s poetry, but almost entirely sidesteps the issue of her sexuality, even when citing works that address it. He concludes, “whether the pure think her emotion pure or impure, whether the impure appreciate it rightly, or misinterpret it, whether, finally, it was platonic or not, seems to me to matter nothing.”

The translations he collects reflect this insistent side-stepping. Although Wharton’s literal rendering of the Ode to Aphrodite is faithful to the gender of the original without comment: “Who wrongs thee, Sappho? For even if she flies she shall soon follow...and if she loves not shall soon love, however loth.”

Most of the metrical renderings he collects all turn the diffident beloved to “he”. Wharton’s version of fragment 31 is less problematic, given that the original lacks the same overt reference to Sappho as the speaker and clear reference to the gender of the beloved. Thus the metrical versions by male poets that he collects can be received as the jealousy of one man (the poet) for another over the woman they both desire. Rather than a direct translation, here’s a borrowing of the imagery for another context by Lord Tennyson in 1832:

I watch thy grace; and in its place
My heart a charmed slumber keeps,
While I muse upon thy face;
And a languid fire creeps
Through my veins to all my frame,
Dissolvingly and slowly: soon
From thy rose-red lips my name
Floweth; and then, as in a swoon,
With dinning sound my ears are rife,
My tremullous tongue faltereth,
I lose my color, I love my breath,
I drink the cup of a costly death
Brimmed with delicious draughts of warmest life.
I die with my delight, before
I hear what I would hear from thee.

In versions such as this, the male literary establishment claimed Sappho’s poetic legacy for their own and for heterosexual love, by appropriating Sappho’s words and removing them from the context of her own desires.

But while one 19th century movement straight-washed Sappho in order to claim her for Romanticism, Sappho’s transgressive sexuality was enthusiastically embraced by the decadent movement that sprang up in France, who saw in her in icon of everything they considered most outrageous to bourgeois sensibilities: an aggressive and predatory female sexuality that led inevitably to madness and death.

This movement evoked their version if the legendary Sappho in works like Charles Baudelaire’s “Lesbos” (in 1857), and Pierre Louÿs’s The Songs of Bilitis (in 1894)--a cycle of poems in the voice of a fictional member of Sappho’s community.

Rather than end on that note, I’d like to close with two works by the American poet, Mary Hewitt. Her translation of Sappho’s fragment 31 published in 1845 fails somewhat in terms of poetic merit but seems to carry an intensity of emotion that many other translations lack.

Fragment 31 (Mary Hewitt)

Blest as the immortal gods is he
On whom each day thy glances shine
Who hears thy voice of melody
And meets thy smile so all divine

Oh when I list thine accents low
How thrills my breast with tender pain
Fire seems through every vein to glow
And strange confusion whelms my brain

My sight grows dim beneath the glance
Whose ardent rays I may not meet
While swift and wild my pulses dance
Then cease all suddenly to beat

And o’er my cheek with rapid gush
I feel the burning life-tide dart
Then backward like a torrent rush
All icy cold upon my heart

And I am motionless and pale
And silent as an unstrung lyre
And feel, while thus each sense doth fail
Doomed in thy presence to expire

Hewitt was also inspired to write original poetry in the style of Sappho. The following work echoes many of the themes of fragment 31, but rewoven into a new work. If anything, this poem carries a stronger sense of homoeroticism than the original, for instead of simply recording the speaker’s physical reactions, it explicitly attributes those reactions to love. When I looked for further information on Hewitt, I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover her among the literary lifelong spinsters who formed the backbone of the Romantic Friendship phenomenon. Alas, Hewitt was twice married to men--so my fantasies were shattered--but then so were many of the women of this time who wrote of their strong emotional bonds to other women. This poem suggests that at the very least she would have understood such desires.

If to repeat thy name when none may hear me,
To find thy thought with all my thoughts inwove
To languish where thou’rt not -- to sigh when near thee
Oh! If this be to love thee, I do love!

If when thou utterest low words of greeting
To feel through every vein the torrent pour
Then back again the hot tide swift retreating
Leave me all powerless, silent as before

If to list breathless to thine accents failing
Almost to pain, upon my eager ear
And fondly when alone to be recalling
The words that I would die again to hear

If at thy glance my heart all strength forsaking
Pant in my breast as pants the frighted doves
If to think on thee ever, sleeping--waking--
Oh! If this be to love thee, I do love!

Major category: 
Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 18:28
cover image - In the Vanishers' Palace

One of the reasons I anxiously anticipate every new Aliette de Bodard release is because I can just assume there will be casual queerness somewhere in every story. (Note: I’m not entirely fond of the wording “incidental lesbians” that has become popular in lesfic circles because I’m not interested in either the characters or their orientations being “incidental”--I want them to be essential to the story, just not in a way that makes orientation or identity itself the essence of the story. For me “casual queerness” better evokes the thing that makes me happy.)

In the Vanishers’ Palace not only has casual queerness, it has casual Vietnamese-rooted fantasy in a post-apocalyptic, post-colonial setting that evokes the experience of having had your entire world and culture trampled and ruined, without direct reference to specific historic events. But that’s only the context, not the story itself.

Yên is a failed scholar, trying to help her mother heal their fellow villagers of the myriad plagues left by the genetic tinkering of the departed Vanishers. Vu Côn is a dragon--a shape-shifting river spirit. Her healing assistance can be begged for a price. When Yên’s mother heals the daughter of an important family with Vu Côn’s help, her own life is that price and Yên is driven both by filial piety and despair to demand to take her place.

As the story is billed as a Beauty and the Beast take-off, one may easily (and correctly) guess where this is going, but beyond the theme of falling in love with a frightening creature, don’t expect the plot to follow the traditional lines. The in-story forces that keep Yên and Vu Côn at arms’ length rise out of the cultural setting: the social dynamics of status and respect, the power differential when supernatural creatures are involved, but with not even a hint that the same-sex aspect is a relevant issue. That’s what I mean by “casual” queerness. And as we delve deeper into the looming dangers of the Vanishers’ palace--a warped space of impossible geometries and fatal traps--the fantasy trappings merge seamlessly with science-fictional ones to create a genre that defies categories.

The happy ending never feels guaranteed, despite genre expectations, making it feel well-earned. In sum: I loved loved loved this novella, both for the exquisite writing that I’ve come to expect from de Bodard, and for the way I feel seen and included as a reader.

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