Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 3g: The Roman Period - Tribades - Philaenis
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One particular woman’s name crops up in relation to several references to tribades, creating a confusing implication that a specific tribade named Philaenis was part of Roman history. In this section, Boehringer dissects out the origins, traditions, and contexts that connect the name Philaenis to sex between women (as well as other sexual contexts). This is a long, complicated discussion and I will skim over some parts.
Classical literature makes reference to a number of treatises on love and sex, although very few survive. (Ovid’s The Art of Love operates within this genre, and a number of literary works have characters comment on, or quote excerpts from, sex manuals.) Even the nature of the referenced works is not entirely clear. They may have been serious compilations of sexual advice, or parodies of technical manuals on other topics, or satirical works. Some later catalogs of books (often our only source for material that is now lost) discuss books that describe various sexual positions. A number of authors for this type of literature are named or referenced in multiple unrelated sources, indicating the likelihood of a genuine original. Of these, the name Philaenis is the most common, and came eventually to stand in for the entire genre of sex manual.
It was not uncommon for sex manuals to be attributed to female authorship, although in some cases this may be a pseudonym used by a male author, with a nod to the belief that women were more interested in sex (or at least, less restrained). Boehringer sets aside the question of whether there was a real author named Philaenis (and whether that author was in fact female) and focuses on the “authorial persona” that went by that name.
Many references to Philaenis’ work suggest that it was a catalog of sexual positions, but the discovery of three papyrus fragments that reference Philaenis as author show a somewhat broader coverage—more of an “art of love” discussing many aspects of behavior on topics such as seduction and kissing.
In addition to this limited direct material, the appearance of the name Philaenis in connection with sexual manuals suggest that the authorial persona was known from the late 4th or early 3rd century BCE. Two epigrams of the 3rd century BCE state, in the voice of Philaenis, that she was not a debauched woman or prostitute, though she had been slandered as such. These are literary exercises, written about her legacy and reputation, not about the woman herself (and certainly not by her). By the 1st century CE, a humorous reference in an inscription written for a statue of Priapus (a clearly sexual context) references a woman demanding “all the positions described by Philaenis” from her (male) lover. In the 2nd century CE, Lucian uses “the tablets of Philaenis” as an example of filthy language. Eventually the author’s name became metonymic for the work itself and “a Philaenis” simply meant a sex manual.
Although various sources argue over or refute that Philaenis was a courtesan or prostitute—perhaps a natural conclusion given the subject of the text—there is no evidence that supports either conclusion. Boehringer argues against some scholarly opinion that the name came to stand in for a generic courtesan or prostitute. (Part of the difficulty comes from the limited contexts in Latin literature in which ordinary women are mentioned by name at all, and the very limited number of “respectable” women so named.) Thus the interpretation of references to the literary Philaenis has been confounded by scholarly assumptions that any woman with that name could automatically be interpreted as a prostitute. But conversely, it is reasonable to interpret any mention of the name as raising sexual associations in the minds of the classical readers/hearers, even when there is no overt indication of sex work.
This association with sex, but not specifically with prostitution, is evident in the three contexts of most relevance to the present work, in which a character named Philaenis appears as a tribade: two epigrams by Martial and a passage in Lucian’s Erotes. Here again we run into confusion created by more recent scholars who projected a post-Classical connection between prostitution and female homosexuality onto the Classical material. But a study of the specific contexts in which tribas appears, make it clear that the Romans did not conflate the two. In looking at those contexts, it’s key to understand that to the Romans “Philaenis” did not mean “a prostitute or courtesan” but rather “a woman who has a deep theoretical knowledge about sexual matters and writes on this topic.”
A total of nine epigrams by Martial involve a character with the name Philaenis. Two specifically associate the subject with sex between women (though not necessarily exclusively) while the other seven do not. It should not be assumed that all the epigrams are intended to be understood as referring to the same specific woman (or even to an actual woman at all). Martial’s epigrams, in general, address concrete everyday subjects in a vivid and exaggerated way, and only rarely can be associated with actual historic people. The humor is often crude and there is an over-arching theme of mocking or demonizing behaviors that the poet disapproved of. In general, Martial is targeting character types, not specific individuals.
Boehringer provides an extended analysis of the themes and topics that Romans considered obscene or repulsive (and which therefore were the sorts of themes Martial addressed). This is too complex a topic to get into in this summary, but key features are disapproval of immoderate and excessive behavior, and an attitude that oral sex pollutes the mouth and is therefore degrading to the one who performs it.
Thus we set up the interpretation of a fairly lengthy epigram describing the behavior of “the tribade Philaenis” who engages in a series of activities to an immoderate degree that she believes to show her “manliness”. But as the punchline twist, “when she’s horny, she doesn’t give blowjobs—that would be unmanly—but greedily eats out girls cunts.” The force of the satire is to show how Philaenis is so misled as to how to “perform masculinity” that she does the least manly thing of all: perform oral sex on women. The full explanation of the symbolism and reasoning behind this text is very detailed and necessary to understand the epigram, as the point of the text is not to accuse a specific actual woman of being a tribade and to associate the performance of masculinity with that status, but rather to mock the idea of excess (both sexual and non-sexual) as being a virtue, using a “clueless woman” as the butt of the joke. This is important, as a superficial reading would suggest that all the activities Philaenis engages in (including fucking boys, fondling girls, exercising in the gymnasium, and excessive dining and drinking) are part of a Roman stereotype of female homosexuality. Boehringer argues (similarly to other recent studies) that Philaenis’s sexual activities are not part of a coherent “type” and do not represent a sort of “proto-butch” stereotype. But rather that they are only one element in a catalog of activities related only by standing outside the ideal of behavior.
The second of Martial’s epigrams is much shorter: “Philaenis, tribade of tribades, you are right to name the one you fuck (futuis) your mistress (amicam).” The punchline here—if briefer—is similar in presenting an apparent absurdity: a woman “fucking” someone (using a word that is defined as performing insertive sex in a vagina), and the wordplay of amica meaning both literally “female friend” and specifically “mistress, female lover”, when Roman society made little allowance for the category “female lover of a woman” to exist.
There is also a discussion of the other contexts in which Martial uses the name Philaenis, which he generally applies to an “anti-erotic” woman, one whom no man would care to fuck. Within this context, the tribade Philaenis is simply one more type of unfuckable woman.
The reference to Philaenis in Lucian’s Erotes comes within a rhetorical exercise in which four characters debate whether a (male) preference for boys or for women as sexual partners is preferable. In addition to the gender issue, the debate also concerns the appropriate place of phyical pleasure with respect to love. This is not a debate about heterosexuality versus homosexuality (as it is sometimes presented) but about the appropriate purpose and experience of love. In particular, the characters universally reject love between two adult men, and the spectre of love between two women is raised as the ultimate sexual bogeyman that can negate any position to which it can be compared. As with Martial, the detailed explanation of the context for interpreting this is essential and too long to summarize here.
A potential f/f scenario is not part of the central debate—there is no point at which the characters evaluate it in the same way they are evaluating other relationships. Rather, it is presented as a reductio ad absurdum: if relations between (adult? this isn't entirely clear) men are simply a matter of individual taste, then one might as well accept desire between women. The text spins an ever more elaborate vision of this scenario, envisioning women “harnessed to this object built in the shape of licentious parts” performing acts identified by “this word, that we hardly ever hear, and that I even feel shame pronouncing, I mean tribadistic lust”, where women’s bedrooms are “each a Philaenis outraging decency with her androgynous loves.” The speaker is arguing on behalf of the primacy of m/f love and this vision of f/f love being a natural conclusion of supporting m/m love is intended to nail down his position as unassailable. But at the same time, the text as a whole—as a philosophical exercise—is not meant to argue against the validity of men loving boys. Only the specific character does so.
Boehringer then discusses this genre of philosophical argument and how it is normally structured, to provide more context for understanding this episode. Skipping ahead to her conclusions, Philaenis—as a figure of female sexual knowledge—becomes a spectre of all types of sexual activity outside the acceptable, of which the tribade is simply an extreme case. Lucian’s Philaenis is not specifically and exclusively a tribade, but she opens the door to “tribadistic” possibilities.
But though the Classical Roman references to Philaenis cannot be construed to interpret the author-persona as a tribade (just as they can’t be taken to construe her as a prostitute), two later commentaries from the 10th century did make this leap, specifically identifying the author-persona Philaenis as “a hetairistria and tribade” who “described the different types of sexual relations between women.” And these later interpretations are part of what has led modern scholars to make the same connection, even though the 10th century commentaries are shaped significantly by later Byzantine opinions about same-sex relations.
In sum: Philaenis the putative author of a manual on love and sex (whoever the real-life author may have been) was gradually turned into a stock character representing a sexually knowledgeable woman, and then in turn into a tribade in some examples. But the texts referencing this stock character must be interpreted in the context of the evolution and not as indicating a fixed, enduring meaning. She became, in some ways, an “anti-Sappho.” Sappho was connected to love, Philaenis to sex. Not until the 3rd century CE does any surviving text apply the term tribade to Sappho, even when discussing Sappho’s relations with women. In addition, Philaenis represents the “public tribade”, the woman whose activities are done openly and about which everyone knows. But in contrast to the later use of f/f imagery for male titillation, Philaenis and her fellow tribades are never represented as attractive for the male gaze. They stand outside the realm of the erotic (from a male point of view).