Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 3e: The Roman Period - Tribades - Seneca
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The mention of tribades in Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae, something of a textbook for arguing legal cases, appears to be straightforward. A man comes upon his wife and another woman engaged in sex and kills them both. The women are identified as “tribades,” and there is a passing mention of the man examining the second person, whom he had perceived as being a man, “to see whether he was born that way or whether it had been stitched on.” Superficially, this would appear to be evidence that sex between women was classified as adultery and that there was a perception that a woman might use and “attached” implement to engage in it.
But as with many of the other fleeting references that Boehringer examines, there’s a lot more nuance to this example and the understanding of f/f sexuality is represents is more nuanced.
The Controversiae are not simple presentations of actual cases in law, but hypothetical cases that are intended to stretch the boundaries of argumentation, supported by secondary examples that examine specific questions and considerations of the case. Each case in the work is structured similarly: a statement of the (fictional) case to be considered, presentations of existing legal texts that the accusation and defense will draw on to make their arguments, then examples of speeches relevant to the case by other orators (interrupted by Seneca’s commentary). The material is grouped under several categories: the sententiae (the opinions on the topic), the divisio (an organized presentation of the arguments), and the colores (various legal motifs not directly related to the law in question but that are presented to explain or excuse the act).
The reference to tribades occurs in one of these colores and so is not the central legal case being argued, but rather brought in to examine one of the central issues from a different angle. In this case, the question is how to make arguments on a sex-related crime without resorting to crude and obscene language. The tribade example is given of an argument that does not avoid obscenity – that is, the point of talking about tribades is to emphasize that talking about tribades is to engage in obscenity. The episode itself is not Seneca’s but is quoted from the early 1st c CE consul Scaurus, who is referencing a speech he heard by two Greek orators, Hybreas and Grandaus. The episode is quoted in Greek, embedded within Seneca’s Latin text and the manuscript is somewhat mutilated and has been transmitted via several different variants in later copies, so there’s a great deal of distance between any interpretation of the episode in question and everyday reality, even aside from the fictional nature of the text’s genre.
But given all that, one central question is, “What is the purpose that this example is serving within the legal argument? What can that tell us about how to interpret it in sociological and legal terms?” Boehringer notes the difficulty and uncertainty in answering these questions and gives her best understanding.
Firstly, the example indicates that Roman land was not ambiguous on the topic of women’s same-sex relations, because it the law itself were ambiguous, then that would have been included as a topic of debate within the text. The orators make no reference to a specific law covering sex between women (which is a highly meaningful omission) and there are no other legal or literary texts referring to this scenario.
Secondly, the other details presented as exculpatory for the man who killed the two women indicate that the concern was whether he had a legitimate basis for his acts. The scenario mentions that it was dark, that he thought his wife’s lover was a man (whether natural or “stitched on”). If sex between women, in and of itself, constituted adultery and was a legitimate reason for a husband to take revenge, then none of these circumstances would be relevant. Therefore one clear conclusion that can be drawn from the case is that sex between women was not illegal and was not considered adultery, for which a husband was entitled to take revenge.
A third consideration raised by Grandaus is whether the context of the event removed the wife’s lover from the category of “woman” and thus could justify the category of adultery. Boehringer points out that the fact that this is a topic of debate does not support the interpretation that f/f sex was understood as an asymmetrical relationship with one partner performing a masculine role. Both women are identified with the label tribade and the suggestion of one partner being read as masculine is raised as a possibly mitigating factor, not as an assumed fact. Given the layers of hypothetical argumentation, we need not even assume that in the original altercation that the husband actually did perceive his wife’s partner as male—the point is that if he did, this would be a circumstance that could justify his actions. (Assuming that there was an actual original altercation and the whole thing isn’t invention in the first place.)
A fourth conclusion—one specifically stated by Seneca—is that the topic of sex between women was considered “obscene” in a way that topics such as prostitution and heterosexual adultery were not.
[Note: The Roman definition of “obscenity” is a complex topic in itself—in the last couple days I’ve been following along with a friend tweeting a summary of a study of this specific topic, and Roman “obscenity” was very tied up with the presumption of an elite male point of view. So one should interpret Seneca’s statement as having an implicit context of “elite Roman men considered the topic of sex between women to be obscene”. We have no indication of what Roman women of any class thought about the topic.]