Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 77 (previously 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.
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.
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 http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/martial.html]
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!
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 Sarapias...to this Herais...now, 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.
A critical look at the evidence regarding sexual and romantic relationships between women in Classical Rome.
In this episode we talk about:
Primary Publications Used
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online