Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Preface to the English Translation
The author discusses the reception of the original 2007 text and sexist/homophobic responses from even the French publisher who put it out, attacking the very concept of academic gender and sexuality studies—a reaction out of line with French academic traditions.
[Note: In a curious echo of centuries of cultures always attributing lesbianism to “foreign” influences, certain voices within the culture that produced Foucault derided sexuality history as an American contamination.]
This translation provides an opportunity to reconsider and update certain elements in light of continuing scholarship in the field. The author notes that she uses the term “homosexuality” as an abstract concept, rather than implying personal identity in a modern sense. She reviews the history of scholarship on Greek sexuality, colored by the era and attitudes to those studying it. Up through the mid 20th century these studies largely excluded women as a topic, with the narrow exception of Sappho studies, which often took place outside academia. The rise of women’s studies as a field changed this, alongside interest in the history of sexuality from a historical, not a psychological, perspective.
But new, more expansive studies of ancient sexuality continued to overlook female homosexuality as a topic, treating it as an afterthought or appendix. Rare breakthrough exceptions include Hallett 1989. Only since the late 1990s has female homosexuality in antiquity come into its own as a topic of serious and independent study, rather than an addition to studies of male homosexuality. Brooten 1996 sparked lively debates about the category/term “homosexuality” in classical contexts. Important works include Snyder 1997, Rabinowitz and Auanger 2002 among others. A new phase of scholarship begins around 2010 as female homosexuality appears more often in general collections on ancient sexuality.
Boehringer follows Halperin’s constructionist approach but cautions against mapping male-centered concepts like active/passive onto female experience, but rather seeks to retrieve how classical societies understood their own world in its particularity. Boehringer defines her book's focus as “ancient documents referring to amorous and/or sexual relations between women.”
Preface to the Original French Edition by David Halperin
He gives the general background to the essentialist/constructionist debate and acknowledges the attraction of identifying with cultures and individuals in the past, as well as the social and political uses of historical identification. There is a discussion of the definition of the term “sexuality” and he asserts that studies of its history often focus on eras when sexuality, as such, didn’t exist.
A quest to find a history for the specific modern experience of homosexuality (supposing there is one) becomes a teleological search for a past connection between an array of characteristics and attributes that were not necessarily connected to each other except in the present moment. The history of relations between women raises the question of “which relations?” Love? Desire? Intimacy? Sex? Masculine women? Women seeking to live outside heteronormative and patriarchal structures? Women who made personal and social alliances with women instead of men? What parts of modern “lesbian identity” are we studying when we study lesbian history?
There is a discussion of the slipperiness of the word “lesbian” itself. What has it referred to in different times and contexts? If we are looking to identify concepts and experiences in the past that can be identified as “lesbian” how is this affected by the difficulty in defining what we mean by the word today? Are we looking for a continuous, unbroken tradition of lesbianism or are we comfortable associating the term with a discontinuous heterogeneous sequence of concepts—similar to the changing understandings of concepts like “marriage” or “family”? Such identifications across time are unescapable, but also hazardous to the practice and understanding of history.
[Note: I feel this is a key thing to keep in mind. When you look at the concept/category of "lesbian" in the last half century, and how contested and debated its boundaries and definitions are, it should be apparent how complicated it would be to trace a "history of [modern] lesbianism" even if that were the goal. Even if you boil the definition down to "women who love and/or have sex with women", the love/sex branching point instantly creates more than one "history" to trace.]
Introduction (by the author)
The introduction starts by defining the topic of the book: love and sexual relations between women (including real, fictional, and fantasized women) in Greek and Roman contexts of the seventh century BCE to the early third century CE. Because the people of those eras did not view relations between women as being parallel to relations between men or to relations between a man and woman, this topic must be studied in its own context, with regard to the place and function of women within society. Due to the nature of the sources, such a study will invariably give undue weight to men’s experience and perception of the topic.
There is a discussion of gender as a concept (i.e., a cluster of social characteristics) as contrasted with sex (biological characteristics, with a nod to the fact that different societies assigned sexual categories to intersex persons in different ways). There is a discussion of the academic politics of “women’s history” and the pressure for it to include men but not the other way around. “Men’s history” is allowed to silently ignore the presence and contributions of women while “women’s history” is required to include men in order to be taken seriously.
As with gender, perceiving sexuality as socially constructed frees the historian from trying to impose modern experience on the past and allows the study of each culture in its own context.
There is a detailed review of previous scholarship on the topic of the sexual/erotic culture of Greece and Rome. The author particularly takes note of the presence and absence of interest in relations between women in prior work. There is a discussion of the author’s approach and some definition of terms to be used. She will use “homosexual” to mean simply “same-sex”, rather than implying cultural or psychological resonances.
The ways people experienced and managed their sex lives are to be understood as focusing around actions, not identities, though identities in the sense of gender, free/unfree, class, etc. certainly were significant. Sexual actions were perceived as asymmetric between partners and might use entirely different words for each one’s experience of the same activity. That means a sexual encounter could never be categorized and evaluated solely on the basis of the gender of the persons involved without regard to status. Source material that appears to judge sexual activity cannot be understood to be judging that activity on the basis of the gender of the participants. Criticism is always in regard to some other specific aspect, and should also be understood as performative with respect to the speaker’s own identity. Little can be taken at face value, especially when men are opining about women. With regard to classical relations between women, the scholar is often more like a paleontologist than a historian, trying to reconstruct an understanding from isolated and incomplete fragments.
I forgot to include this last bit of the introductory material. The author discusses the scope of the work and the nature of the evidence. The late cut off is to exclude Christian texts. But the types of data vary across the scope and this corresponds to different attitudes towards f/f sex. So the analysis can’t entirely be a comparison across eras or a clear picture of development over time.
Chapter 1: Myth and Archaic Lyric Poetry
While Boehringer emphasizes that male and female relations and experiences cannot be taken as parallel, a study of the Archaic era must inevitably examine male/male institutions and practices. Studies of Archaic Greek same-sex practices are often filtered through a lens of morality that leads scholars to emphasize or obscure certain aspects. But even the classical sources that commented on Archaic practices can’t be taken at face value, especially in the case of Athenian authors writing about Sparta.
We get a basic overview of the social institution of pederasty and the different attitudes and experiences of it, particularly with respect to theories that it was the remnants of an older “rite of passage” rather than a primarily erotic practice.
[Note: In using the term “pederasty” here, both Boehringer and I am referring to an ancient Greek cultural practice that has a very different connotation than the modern use of the term, which carries an inherent implication of sexual abuse and moral condemnation. Let us not lose track of the fact that a lot of historic cultural attitudes toward sex would be considered abusive and morally problematic today. So in asking that readers accept this particular term as neutral in its historic context, there is no intent to transfer that acceptance to unrelated modern meanings.]
The evidence for female parallels to pederasty is scanty and not contemporary. The evidence for female coming-of-age rituals is more plentiful, which is another line of thinking regarding the context of Archaic poetry.
The most explicit reference to a system of female pederasty is Plutarch’s 2nd century CE commentary on Spartan practices of seven centuries earlier. Plutarch was summarizing and interpreting sources now lost to us, but may also have filtered them through his own understanding and purposes. But what he describes is a system in which virtuous (the wording makes it clear these are established community members) adult women love (using a form of “eros”) maidens (parthenai) and worked to make their beloved (eromenon) a good person. There was no rivalry if two women loved the same maiden, but rather it was a basis of friendship between them.
This passage establishes both that this practice was parallel to that of men, and that the lover-beloved relationship was asymmetric and to some extent pedagogical. But one can question whether Plutarch was describing practices accurately or simply assuming them. One can also question whether his interpretation of a desexualized mentor relationship was descriptive or an imposition of his own values.
The other passage often interpreted as referring to a more sexual female pederasty is similarly of late date (first century CE) when Athenaeus says that among the Spartans it was customary to have intercourse with young girls “as with young boys”, but the parallelism is highly ambiguous. Who is having the intercourse? Adult women (paralleling both roles in m/m pederasty)? Or the same adult men who are having intercourse with boys? (Keeping in mind that m/m relations typically involved interfemoral intercourse, not penetration.)
The analysis moves on to the many historic interpretations of Sappho and how we have far more material speculating on her life then we have from her. She has been variously interpreted as a teacher, leader of a maiden chorus, leader of a “thiasos” (a religious society), or a poet who performed at symposia (drinking parties). Each theory presents different interpretations of her audience and the cultural context of her work. For example, interpreting fragment 31 (“He seems like a god”) as an epithalamium – a praise song for a bride - has different implications then viewing it as a personal expression. These questions are even more complicated when applied to the work of the male poet Alcman.
Given the fragmentary and difficult nature of Sappho’s and Alcman’s poetry, Boehringer begins by looking at the larger context of love and desire expressed in Archaic poetry. In general, the “eros” of this general genre of poetry expresses “sweetness” drawing comparisons with the experience of sleep, liquidity, and music or song. Eros is the experience of an external force, with the lover at its mercy. Eros instills desire, which is expressed as aspiring to beauty and valor. It transforms the lover against their will. Eros acts through the gaze, not by physical contact. Erotic poetry typically expresses the state of activated desire and seeking; the focus is on pursuit, but not on resolution or fulfillment. The beloved is typically elusive. The relationship is inherently and eternally asymmetric as a pursuer and a pursued.
Alcman was a spartan of the seventh century BCE whose poetry is interpreted as referencing certain Spartan festivals. His work is fragmentary but two long pieces belong to a genre called “partheneia”, songs meant to be sung by a chorus of young women. Written by a male poet, they are written in the first-person plural, meant to be understood as the voice of the female performers.
Within these poems there are two long sections that may express amorous sentiment between women. In both cases the poems praise specific named women, speak of the feelings they inspire in the singers, and express the singers’ desire to have the women notice their desire and respond to it. In one, two women are named as the subject of these feelings and, if the song is an epithalamium, one scholar has proposed it may celebrate the union of the two women. By many, the songs are interpreted as depicting an institutionalized hierarchical homosexual “stage of passage”, in which the performers are in the role of lover. Others see the performers as young women expressing the public voice of the community. Yet others see the sentiments as expressing, erotic desire but in a formalized public context rather than as a personalized declaration of love. That is, they are formal eulogy but expressed in the form of individual desire. Other interpretations, different in detail, are reviewed.
If one focuses on the “fiction” inherent in the words of the poetic texts, four things are clear. The poetic persona expresses an amorous or erotic feeling. That feeling is experienced by women. The object of the feeling is a woman. And the feeling is claimed to be the experience of the speakers. The specific imagery of the praise is relevant. The speakers describe their own beauty and virtues but protest that they feel unworthy of interest from the woman they praise. They catalog women they have desired in the past, but claim the current desire surpasses those experiences. The beloved’s gaze provokes overwhelming desire that is not answered. The self-descriptions make it clear that the “persona” of the song is female.
Another one-word fragment from Alcman further supports the image of a concept of female pederasty in Sparta: “aïtas”, the feminine plural of a masculine noun which has the same meaning and reference as “eromenos”, the younger beloved in a male pederastic relationship. There is no context for interpreting the specific meaning of the feminine word, but an erotic context can be assumed though not the social structures and rituals it might reference.
In summary, Alcman’s partheneia songs are clear expressions of homoerotic desire or attraction because they use the established vocabulary and tropes of erotic love within a context establishing both lover and beloved as female. The language is conventional, but all erotic poetry of the era is conventional. The poems cannot be taken as an expression of individual, personal desire, despite the first-person language, but the very public and formal context of its performance indicates that homoerotic desire between women must have been a normal, excepted aspect of society. The feelings the women express are an integral part of the image of social harmony and stability that is the underlying theme of the genre.
Sappho was a near contemporary of Alcman, though a direct correspondence of cultural practices between Sparta and Lesbos cannot be assumed. Little is known directly about her personal life except that she probably belonged to one of the island’s aristocratic families, that her family seems to have been involved in political conflicts, and that as a result they went into exile in Sicily. All other interpretations of her personal life are read into her poetry.
She wrote a large body of poetry, of which only fragments and one complete poem survive. Even the genre classification of her work is based on later interpretations. Many of the poems are expressed in the first person, but as we see with Alcman, although this may be intended to attribute the sentiments to the performer, it cannot be assumed they are the sentiments of the author, even when identified as such, as in the ode to Aphrodite. The Sappho-persona in such poems exists within the erotic trope of always desiring without response, or recalling a distant or past love, never a moment of present requiting. Aphrodite may promise a future reversal, but in the moment of the poem, the Sappho-persona is endlessly suffering the pangs of unrequited eros. Yet the retrospective poems offer memories of sweetness and the pleasures of love. Eros is both sweet and violently disruptive. It enters through the gaze and is provoked again by visual memories. The Sappho-persona dismisses her own virtues and attractiveness and despairs of having her desire returned.
The experience of physical desire is highlighted, but there are a few direct, unambiguous sexual images – a feature sometimes fastened upon to dismiss the erotic nature of the work. (Though some scholars have pointed to words and phrases that may be poetic metaphors for sexual experiences.) But references to sex only through euphemism is a general feature of erotic poetry of the time, so this cannot be used to uniquely deny sexual implications to Sappho’s writing.
As with Alcman, the contents of Sappho’s poetry would have been understood within her own social context as unambiguously referring to erotic and sexual love between women. And as with Alcman, there is a complete absence of concern about moral or social judgment, or that the feelings are in any way outside social norms. The sadness and despair that is sometimes expressed is an inherent trope of the genre of erotic poetry, and appears regardless of the genders of the participants. Nor is there anything in Sappho’s work that suggest eros between women was considered qualitatively different from eros in other contexts.
Anacreon lived in the 6th century BCE and was born in Ionia, but lived in a variety of Greek communities. Like Sappho, he was prolific but his poems survive only in fragments and his “biography” has been read into the subjects of the poems, often involving love and symposia. His work mostly uses a first person “persona” and often uses the fiction of spontaneous commentary on the context of performance. His expressions of erotic longing are often humorously self-deprecating and include sexual innuendo, but never direct sexual terminology.
This self-deprecation features in a poem in which the Anacreon-persona laments that Eros attracted his attention to a “girl from Lesbos” but she spurned him for having white hair (i.e., being old) and the girl directs her attention to “another”. The word for “another” is grammatically feminine, so there is potential ambiguity between “another (girl)” or “another (hair)” - hair being grammatically feminine. The girl’s attention is described as “gaping (at)” and some have seen a double-entendre for the reputation of women of Lesbos for practicing oral sex. Yet others see the reference to Lesbos as reinforcing an interpretation of “another” as indicating a woman. But would mention of Lesbos have created either of these implications at the time?
There is a brief digression regarding the verb “lesbiazein”. Boehringer points out that it has no semantic connection to female homosexuality except via common reference to the island of Lesbos. The verb literally means “to do as the inhabitants of Lesbos do” and is one of a set of geography-inspired sexual verbs that typically refer to a negatively-evaluated practice attributed to the people of the region by their neighbors. The context of use of “lesbiazein” indicates that the action was considered shameful, and that it was not exclusive to women. Furthermore, there are contexts that define and distinguish “to phoenicianize” (perform cunnilingus) and “to lesbianize” (perform fellatio). This last strongly suggests that “lesbiazein” would not be used for sex between two women. The verb seems to have been popularized in fifth century Athenian comedy when there was conflict with Lesbos.
While Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans makes an unambiguous connection between Lesbos and sex between women, that comes from a much later date.
During Anacreon’s era, Sappho’s name was not used to reference sex between women. This lack of a contemporary linkage between Lesbos and sex between women has been used to argue that Anacreon’s poem could not be indicating that the girl spurned the poet-persona for another girl. But the lack of a semantic connection does not exclude the interpretation that the girl being from Lesbos and her preference for a girl could be independent elements in the poem. The poem is deliberately a humorous “twist” but the ambiguity of that twist could easily be a design feature rather than a problem to be solved. Anacreon includes a number of references and echoes of Sappho’s work in his poems, often playfully reworking or exaggerating her imagery. Not only is the girl in the poem from Lesbos, but she is “fancy-sandaled” using a word form from Sappho’s dialect, not his own. All together, this suggests that the reading in which the girl desires another girl is an allusion to the content of Sapho’s poetry, not to an association of Lesbos in general with female homosexuality. There is no condemnation of her preference inherent in the poem, only the poet-personas self-deprecating regret but she didn’t choose him.
We now turn to the non-poetic sources from the Archaic era. We start with a painted plate from circa 620 BCE from the island of Thera. It shows two female figures facing each other, each holding a garland. One is touching the other’s chin, otherwise the figures are symmetric and show an equal interaction in their postures and gazes. This contrasts with the use of the same tropes for m/f or m/m couples where there is an asymmetry (in m/m couples, the person doing the chin-touching is always an older man and the one being touched is younger). But the general framework - two figures facing each other, the gifts to exchange, and the chin touch – is a universal vocabulary of an erotic advance. It is difficult to interpret the meaning of the egalitarian presentation of the women as the scene is unique. It might indicate that f/f courtship was more equal, or it might be specific to this one picture. But note that m/f and m/m scenes, which are far more common, never show an egalitarian couple.
Gaps in couple symbolism
In a brief digression, Boehringer reviews categories of depictions of erotic encounters in poetry and art. Epic poetry typically depicts male-female couples while melic poetry includes both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. But within this, some configurations are absent. Adult men love young men and young women. Adult women can love young women. But an adult man does not love another adult man, and an adult woman does not love a younger man. (Though a goddess may love a young man.)
Is there any significance to the general absence of artistic depictions of erotic scenes between women? One conclusion it suggests, given social gender dynamics, is that f/f erotic scenes were not of interest to a male audience in archaic Greece. But it’s also the case that the treatment of female homoeroticism in the Archaic period is unique relative to later eras in being celebrated similarly to other pairings and not being subject to criticism.
Callisto and Artemis
M/m relations are common in Greek mythology but f/f relations are rare – some assert absent entirely. In the remainder of this chapter, Boehringer takes a deep dive into the myth of Callisto, and teases out the themes and motifs that show it to be that rare exception.
The analysis is too detailed to summarize easily, but the overall conclusions are that the myth reflects an assumed and accepted erotic relationship between the goddess Artemis and the mortal (or nymph) Callisto which is disrupted by Callisto’s rape and pregnancy, in most versions by Zeus either disguised as, or transformed into, Artemis. This disruption results in Callisto being excluded from Artemis’s all-female community, her transformation into a bear, and her death or transformation into a constellation (or both). The myth is, in part, an origin story for Callisto’s son Arkas (who is associated with the founding of Arcadia), and is in part a symbolic narrative of the passage of a maiden in the company of other maidens, into the normative experiences of society (sex with men, pregnancy, motherhood).
There is one known classical era artwork depicting the Callisto myth: a silver vessel dating to the 3rd century CE in Spain with scenes of four of Jupiter’s transformations for the purposes of seduction/rape.
Several other aspects of the myth are touched on separately. Although there are several Greek myths with the motif of sex/gender transformation, the Callisto myth is the only one where the transformation is for the purpose of sexual access. The transformation would make no sense unless Callisto were only receptive to a female lover.
Another key motif in most of the versions of the myth is a bathing scene, during which Callisto’s pregnancy (and therefore her rape) is revealed. There is a discussion of a bathing motif being involved--in several different contexts--with the perception of essential female nature. E.g., men encountering either Artemis or Athena bathing and being punished for it. A shared trait is that the two goddesses both have external attributes of masculinity in dress or habits, and therefore these encounters reveal the contrast in sex and gender.
There is a passing note of another story similar to Callisto’s. A girl, Polyphante, rejected the sexual relations associated with Aphrodite (i.e. male-female) in favor of being Artemis’s companion. In revenge Aphrodite made her lust for a bear, which outraged Artemis who sent wild beasts to attack her. There is still an underlying theme of erotic love between women here.
One of the more intriguing classical Greek texts that includes f/f erotics is the mythological narrative included in Plato’s Symposium about divided beings and eros being “seeking one’s other half.” Following Boehriner’s standard approach, she begins by examining the historic and literary context of the work and discussing what the purpose of the passage is within that larger context. While the Symposium is presented as a conversation between actual historic figures (contemporaries of Socrates, the nominal host of the titular symposium), and while it is presented as occurring in the context of an actual historic event (a symposium to celebrate the literary achievement of one of the participants), it is vital to understand that not only are the speeches and dialogues in the Symposium not an attempt to transcribe actual conversations, they are not even necessarily intended to represent the actual ideas and opinions of the figures to whom they are attributed. Rather, this is a formal “set piece” in which the fictionalized participants represent character types, presenting a carefully designed sequence of formal speeches of a particular genre intended to build to the author’s (Plato’s desired goals and conclusions). (Keeping in mind that Plato is not one of the fictionalized participants.) Within this context, it is important to realize that the “other half myth” should not be understood as a literal philosophical position (even apart from it being a “myth”) belonging either to Aristophanes (the fictionalized character in whose mouth it is put), or to Artistotle (the fictionalized host of the event in which it is presented ), or to Plato (the author of the text of the Symposium). Rather it is a rhetorical creation intended to serve a functional purpose within the work as a whole.
The participants have been instructed/created to present speeches on the nature of eros. There is a discussion of how to understand the meaning of eros within this particular historic context, with a suggestion that it should be understood, not so much as “love” but more as “appetite, a temporary state of desiring physical fulfillment that goes away when satiated.” Several of the fictional participants make their presentations on the topic, following the formal structures of the genre, then the participant identified as Aristophanes breaks the flow of the format by telling an “origin myth” for the nature of gender and sex, which includes a recognition of f/f couples alongside m/f and m/m couples.
In Boehringer’s analysis, the Aristophanes-text is designed as a precursor and contrast to the presentation of the Socrates-character (which is presented as a reporting of the views of the priestess Diotima). Prior presentations focused on eros operating within the sexual sphere. While the Socrates/Diotima presentation views eros as the force that inspires people to move from satisfying physical appetites (such as sex) to satisfying the appetite with abstract, elevated virtues, the Aristophanes presentation takes something of a bridging middle ground, viewing eros as a driving force where unification/closeness is the goal and sex is only one path to that goal.
The myth itself can be summed up roughly as follows. In their primordial state, human beings were spherical creatures with four legs, four arms, and two faces. They came in three types: male, female, and hermaphrodite. Because the humans made Zeus mad, he punished them by slicing them all in half. Each half (now having 2 legs, 2 arms, and 1 face) wanted nothing more than to be reunited with their other half. But this reunion—locking the pairs in tight embrace—resulted in them being unable to do anything else, so they began to die of hunger and inactivity. To remedy this, Zeus moved their genitals to the front of their bodies so that they could satisfy the desire/appetite/eros for reunion via sexual activity and yet be productive and healthy beings. Each half-human longs for reunification with a being that represents their original “other half”, the half-male beings longing for another male, the half-female beings for another female, and the half-hermaphrodite beings longing for another half-hermaphrodite of the corresponding opposite sex.
Rather than being a serious and sincere philosophical theory, this should be understood as a somewhat humorous treatment of a view representing (but not necessarily reflecting) an “ordinary populace” view of eros. But while the presentation is comical, it also contrasts with the previous presentations on eros in that it treats sexual desire and gratification, not as the central driving feature of eros, but as something of a “make do” substitution for the actual goal of physical reunification. Sex, then, is something the split-humans use to give them the intimacy needed to continue living and to be productive social beings. It is not the eros-as-appetite that disappears once satisfied (or remains eternally unsatisfied). But neither is it the force described by Aristotle/Diotima that continuously pushes humans to reach for ever more abstract and elevated satisfactions.
Boehringer walks the reader through the various stages of this mythic event and the consequences at each stage for erotic categories and motivations. The feature that is most often fastened on by later analysis is how the myth sets up m/f, m/m, and f/f couples as equivalent and “natural”, depending on the nature of the original primordial being they descend from. But another feature, at the step-by-step level of analysis is a distinction of gender categories and physiological-sex categories, for at the stage after the split but before Zeus provided genitals, the longing to reunite was defined by the nature of the original primordial being but not by the presence of a specific type of sexual organ. Nor can one determine a half-being’s sex/gender based on the sex/gender of the being it desires, as all combinations exist. Once genitals are included in the mix, then the consequences of sexual union are differentiated: procreation for m/f pairs, the ability to return to one’s creative endeavors for m/m pairs, while f/f pairs are overlooked in this part of the myth. (Note: the logistics of how m/m beings and f/f beings give rise to descendants of the same nature is also overlooked in the myth.) Some of these logical consequences and contradictions are discussed.
Boehringer presents a fascinatingly detailed diagram showing the category relationships of the “primordial humans” and the “current humans” with regard to sex/gender and the hierarchical evaluation of the consequences for sexual and social behavior in the resulting state. Within this hierarchy, men resulting from m/m beings are the “most manly” and eros drives them to active lives and politics. Men and women deriving from m/f beings are driven to marriage and procreation. While women deriving from f/f beings are omitted from consideration, for the most part.
With regard to categorization, Boehringer points out that the myth begins with three types of beings (mm, ff, and mf), then produces two sexes (men and women), but belonging to three types of erotic categories (m/m, f/f, and m/f). Within this system, there is no concept of “same-sex vs opposite-sex” as categories, nor are there categories defined by “attraction to women / attraction to men” or by “attraction felt by women / attraction felt by men”. Nor is there, in essence, a clear category difference between “men” and “women” as the beings derived from primordial mf beings are treated more similarly to each other than they are to beings derived from mm or ff beings respectively.
The discussion now moves to a specific consideration of where the beings descended from primordial ff beings fit into the scheme of things. In comparison to the descriptions of the state of things for former mf and former mm beings, there is only a brief description of the state of former ff beings: “Women who are split from a woman [i.e., a primordial ff being], however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and hetairistriai come from this class.”
Despite its brevity, this description still exists in parallel with descriptions of the other two categories. It contains a specification of origin (the primordial category), a declaration of desire, mention of a subgroup displaying a particular sexual behavior associated with excess (e.g., “adultery” for the former mf beings). With regard to desire, MF beings produce “men who seek women” and “women who seek men”, mm beings produce “men who seek men”, but the ff category is the only described by negation: “[they] pay no attention at all to men” only then noting that they are “oriented more towards women.” This description seems intended to operate from an assumption that the present (i.e., post-split) assumptions about “natural” behavior must be taken into account. By default, women are assumed to seek men, and if this isn’t the case it must specifically be noted.
But the Greek text has another distinction between these descriptions. Former mf beings “love” (philein) each other, using the verb that carries a meaning of long-term affection and attachment. Former mm beings “diokein” each other, using a verb that carries sexual implications. But former ff beings are the subjects of an external force; they “have been turned” toward each other. (Recall that the overall theme of the Symposium is “eros”, so there is an underlying implication that these are all forms of eros in some sense.)
Each of the three categories includes a statement defining a subgroup of the class that stands out in some way. For the former fm beings, these are “moixoi” (m) and “moixeutriai” (f) which, from other contexts, we know refer to adultery or other forms of illicit sex. Former mm beings, it is suggested, may be “anaisxyntoi” (shameless men), a word attested elsewhere. But former ff beings may be “hetairistriai”—a word uniq ue in the classical Greek corpus.
Boehringer spends a couple of pages delving into the linguistic context of this word. In brief, it is a double-derivative of the root “hetaira” which, in a literal sense, is part of a gendered pair of nouns hetairos/hetaira meaning “(male/female) friend, companion” (though of course the feminine version developed a contextual meaning of “a courtesan, a mistress”). There is a case to be made that Plato invented the word “hetairistriai,” playing off of the reputation Aristophanes had for linguistic invention. The “courtesan” sense of hetaira occurs only in the context of women’s relations with men. The masculine hetairos only ever appears in the neutral sense of “friend, companion.” But the related verb “hetairein” occurs in the classical period only in the sense of male prostitution. So one can’t use a preponderance of the evidence to try to triangulate on the meaning of hetairistriai. Does it carry a sense of sex work? Or a neutral sense of companionship?
The parallelism in the descriptions of the three erotic categories make it clear that not all women-desiring-women are hetairistriai, just as not all male/female pairs are adulterous. So regardless of any further nuances of meaning, hetairistria is not categorically mean “homosexual woman”, even though later authors interpreted it in that sense. The implication from the parallelism is that a hetairistria is a woman who experiences desire for a woman that goes beyond the accepted norms of behavior.
Another point where parallelism is incomplete is in the internal structure of the erotic category. The category of former mf beings is divided into “men” and “women”. The category of former mm beings is divided into “paiderastes” and “philerastes” (lovers of boys, lovers of men) with an assumed age differentiation between the couple. But there is no differentiation within the category of former ff beings, neither of age nor of active/passive, nor of masculine/feminine. Thus, if we follow the logical structure of this set of descriptions, there is a space for a category that is undifferentiated “women who desire women” which is not viewed as outside socially accepted expectations. This category cannot be merged with former mm beings into a category of “homosexuals”, nor can it be merged with female former mf beings in a category of “women”.
Having described and cataloged the concept of “women who love women” within this origin myth explaining the power of eros, the question remains how this category had relevance to the overall philosophical program that Plato conceived in the Symposium. The mythological explanation attributed to Aristophanes is not a descriptive exposition of the state of erotic relations in contemporary Athenian society. There are a number of gaps and misalignments, particularly with regard to m/m relations, but also in regard to its unrealistic depiction of former mf beings as equivalent in nature. The attribution of this presentation to Aristophanes also misaligns in essential points with the content and attitudes of the plays of the real-life author of that name. (For example, none of his plays make any reference to the possibility of sex between women, although sexual humor is a continuing thread in his work.) Boehringer suggests that the purpose of the fictional-Aristophanes is to “set up” the improved, pure vision of eros put into the mouth of fictional-Socrates, where eros becomes divorced from the goal of sexual union and independent of biological sex. The world picture presented by fictional-Aristophanes (and thus by the authorial-Plato) cannot escape the realities and hierarchical judgments of contemporary society (thus clearly identifying a hierarchy of “goodness” among the three erotic categories). Relations between women must be mentioned for completeness’ sake, but are the most distant of the categories from anything of relevance to the social life of Athenian men—the only category of genuine importance to Plato. But this very disinterest in the importance of the category of women-loving-women makes significant the fact that it is accounted for at all, and treated in a neutral fashion.
From all this, Boehringer’s conclusion is that—despite its distance from everyday real life—the origin myth put into the mouth of fictional-Aristophanes reflects an everyday social reality in 4th century Athens regarding the existence of female homoerotic relations, the distinctiveness of this group as a category from other gender/sexuality categories, and the probable reality of the homogeneity of the category, in contrast to male homoerotic relations.
The second topic in this chapter is another work of Plato, and once again a deep context is needed to interpret what the mention of f/f sex actually means for Greek realities. The Laws takes the form of a conversation between three men about what laws are needed for the governance of the ideal city. This is a different take than the one Plate put forth in the Republic. The Republic was more of an idealized thought experiment. The Laws is more of an exhaustive, practical plan of action (but still a purely hypothetical document).
Both texts are surprisingly inclusive of women’s participation in governance, and the Laws provides for a level of equal participation (within an assumption of physical inferiority) that would have seemed revolutionary within the realities of Athenian life at the time. But the well-regulated state that Plato envisions in the Laws is autocratic and more dystopian in its regulation and surveillance than anything a modern mind would consider as ideal.
This is the context for the attitude toward sexual relations in the Laws that provide the context for the two references to f/f sex. There is a strong focus on strict regulation of population for economic and social stability. There is also a very ascetic approach to physical pleasure. These combine in proposed laws that restrict all sexual activity to that which produces legitimate children within social-sanctioned marriages. Both m/m and f/f sex are prohibited on the basis that they do not produce legitimate offspring, but so is m/f adultery and sex between a citizen and a slave. Thus, there is no conceptual category of “homosexual sex” that is being banned, but rather a category of “illegitimate sexual activity” which is defined as everything outside of a fairly narrow category.
The other context for this prohibition is an attitude that non-procreative sex represents a failure to properly restrain passions and appetites that indicate moral weakness. It’s permissible for approved procreative sex to be enjoyed, because it is otherwise licit, but with no licit purpose, other forms of sex represent a lack of self-control.
These attitudes are very much out of line with the realities of Athenian society, as well as being in conflict with attitudes implicit in Plato’s earlier writings. So does this represent a seismic shift in his own attitudes toward sex, or does the difference lie in the specific genre and purpose of the Laws as a text? Boehringer seems to lean toward the latter. She also notes that the Laws do not include unrealistic, fanciful scenarios to address – the topics covered in the text are practical, real-life subjects that would need to be considered in designing a government.
The ultimate conclusion is that despite the superficially negative context in which f/f sex is mentioned in the Laws, the inclusion of the topic, and its neutral treatment vis-à-vis other types of prohibited sex, indicate that it was a reality of Athenian life that would need to be included in any comprehensive proposal regarding governance of sexual behavior.
This section of the chapter looks at patterns of reference and silence across various types of media to try to interpret the absences of representations of f/f sex. Different genres had different implicit rules about what could or could not be depicted. For example, visual arts that depicted m/m sex invariably stuck to the “ideal” of a desiring older man and a passive youth. Human men were not depicted in scenes with deprecated sexual practices, such as performing oral sex, but such scenes might show a satyr performing the male role, “standing in” for the human man. Sexual scenes do not include persons identifiable as slaves or prostitutes. Female genitals are very rarely depicted and do not appear to have been a site of erotic interest for the expected male viewership. (Though the expected viewership could depend to some extent on the type of object displaying the art.)
Within the larger context, how do we interpret that extreme scarcity of depictions of f/f sex? Boehringer reviews several genres of art that have been interpreted as f/f eroticism and argues that some are regularly misinterpreted. For example, a review of artwork depicting women (or other figures) with an “olisbos” (dildo), when taken together with references to the object in textual material, undermines the theory that it is a signifier of f/f sexual activity, as opposed to solitary female sexual activity. (This discussion is extensive and detailed.)
Certain other individual artworks, such as an image of two women with one kneeling before the other touching her genitals, can be interpreted in light of other highly parallel examples where such an interpretation is impossible (as when the kneeling figure is a satyr). Scenes of naked women bathing together, or of drunken women walking arm in arm, are not clearly erotic. On the other hand, it feels like Boehringer is sometimes working fairly hard to exclude certain depictions, while silently ignoring certain features of the art, For example, a depiction of a seated woman and a standing woman facing each other, both holding garlands (previously noted as featuring in courtship scenes), with the seating woman touching the standing woman’s breast or shoulder is dismissed as difficult to interpret due to the ambiguity of which body part is being touched. An image of two maenads (characters who reject male sexual advances) holding a single cloak around them, is declared to be “not erotic” with no clear explanation, only a reference to another publication on the topic.
But certain marginal possibilities aside, it does seem to be the case that f/f sex in art is vanishingly rare. The overall interpretation of presence and absence in art with regard to sexual topics seems to be that art depicts how society chooses to see itself, rather than being a reflection of everyday reality.
Silence about f/f sex in “Old Comedy” (a genre of drama that often played on bawdy and satiric themes) is harder to make sense of, as the genre regularly indulged in sexual humor of all types, including mockery of non-normative m/m relations, and regular lampooning of women’s stereotypical over-sexualization. Even in a play such as Lysistrata where the women’s lack of access to men for sexual satisfaction is a lynch-pin of the comedy, there are no jokes about f/f sex taking the edge off. Boehringer’s conclusion is “pottery shows us the Greek men did not find sex between women erotic; the silence of comedy…shows ups that they did not find it funny, either.”
Though most genres of literature are silent on f/f sex in the classical period (history, poetry, drama, politics, law), Plato is not the only philosopher whose writings can provide information, if only tangentially. Aristotle was a contemporary of Plato and familiar with the Symposium, so any silence on his part is not ignorance of f/f possibilities. While silent on human females, he notes female same-sex courtship among doves, where he notes treading, billing, and egg laying without making a distinction of active/passive roles as worthy of note. He claims this only occurs in the absence of males, and notes that the resulting eggs are sterile. His interest seems to revolve around reproduction rather than abstract behavior.
Aristotle’s discussions on the relationship of eros and philia focus on m/m relations as the highest form, with sexual pleasure being only a means to achieve philia, not an end in itself. Eros, for its own sake, is not of interest to him. In discussing relations, he makes no distinction or judgment between m/f and m/m relationships, but does not include f/f examples in his discussions. Ero and philia are not exclusive of each other but phila is seen as a more virtuous goal. Women are considered incapable of the virtues that make philia possible (though they can engage in phila with a husband who has those virtues). But, by this reasoning, two women cannot engage in philia together.
This, then, may be the explanation for Aristotle’s failure to speak of f/f relationships: they operate only on the level of eros and therefore are not worth notice. [Note: Boehringer isn’t saying that Aristotle says this explicitly, only that it aligns with his reasoning.] Thus f/f couples are not of interest, not because the relationship is homosexual, but because it involves women.
Plato’s two references to f/f couples exist in a context where the author was developing comprehensive systems (of law, or regarding eros) and therefore chose to account for all possibilities. Aristotle, having a different purpose and program, had no similar need to be comprehensive.
Another meaningful “absence” in writing about f/f relations is the idea (present in later cultures) that there is an element of masculinity behind f/f relations. Women derived from primordial ff creatures were more feminine than women derived from mf creatures. There is no suggestion that they have a masculine appearance or behavior. In both the Symposium and the Laws, what distinguishes women in f/f relationships is their social behavior (attraction to women) or reproductive status (non-reproductive) but not any specific sexual activity. Plato’s f/f women are not “tribades” in the sense of being defined by a sexual act. To the extent that it may be meaningful, Aristotle’s discussion of doves also avoids making any distinction of categorization on the basis of specific sexual behavior.
There are classical Greek writers who describe women who adopt masculine behaviors, but no sexual interpretation is placed on this. Instead, the behavior is considered virtuous, though incapable of achieving the same status as men. Whether in histories or comic drama, Women acting in a masculine way are perceived as trying to “better” themselves, but with no sexual implications. In this, the Archaic and Classical texts are similar, and in contrast with later framings.
In the Classical era, f/f relations are not a cause for concern or condemnation because they are not seen as having any impact on social or political life. Thus, in contrast with some scholars, Boehringer proposes that the Classical Greek silence on f/f relationships, rather than reflecting a taboo driven by male anxiety, reflects and apathy due to lack of male anxiety. What did provoke anxiety are things like concerns about birth rates, as we see in the Laws.
Distinctions regarding sexual partners that were considered relevant in the Classical period included social status, the forms the sexual relations took, and conformity to gender expectations, but not the specific sex of the partners (except to the extent that at least one partner is male). But what set f/f relations apart such as to constitute an identifiable and meaningful category was that both (all) persons involved were female. This distinguished f/f relations from all other possibilities and created what might be thought of as a “proto-category” of female homosexuality in a context where neither “heterosexuality” nor “male homosexuality” were identifiable or distinct as categories. This proto-category is internally homogeneous with no distinction of behavioral role or distinction of moral judgment regarding what relations they might engage in.
Asclepiades of Samos was a poet of the late fourth/early third century BCE, best known for his epigrams, especially those on erotic topics. The epigram as a poetic style, was just coming into popularity and an understanding of the conventions and forms of the genre are essential to interpreting the one epigram referring to f/f erotics.
The poem itself is short and straightforward in interpretation. The poet-persona calls our attention to two women from Samos (like the poet) who “do not wish to frequent the realms of Aphrodite in accordance with her laws, but they desert to other practices that are not appropriate.” He calls on Aphrodite to “abhor them”.
On the surface, this has been interpreted as a condemnation of f/f relations and as indicating that they were socially disapproved. Boehringer argues that the poem must be interpreted in the context of the whole series of related epigrams in which Asclepiades works through an entire catalog of women and boys whom he has desires but who have all, in some way, rejected him. As a whole, the epigrams are humorously self-mocking and the individual romantic failures do not involve condemning the actions or nature of the subject, but rather create the image of the poet-persona as a feckless loser. To the extent that the subjects are criticized, it is as a means of shifting blame from the poet’s ineptness.
Boehringer presents this case with an extensive discussion of the epigram as a genre, the overall nature of Asclepiades’ work, and a comparative study of his erotic epigrams as a unified sequence. She reviews the interpretations put forth by other scholars that the women are courtesans or prostitutes, or that their offense against Aphrodite involves taking a masculine role in sex with women. Each of these is shown to be unsupported, or contradicted by the overall picture, or to be an anachronistic interpretation for the era when they were written.
Her overall conclusion is that this poem is consistent with the image of f/f erotics indicated by Plato’s writings: that it was a known, accepted, and unremarkable possibility, and that it was not viewed as involving differentiated sexual roles, whether as active/passive (as for men) or involving masculinity (as we see in later eras).
To the extent that Asclepiades condemns the women’s preference, it is a personal, selfish condemnation that they do not prefer him. And yet he can characterize f/f relations as “not part of the norm” which is a shift from the more neutral (or at least indifferent) attitude of previous centuries.
Comic drama of the fifth and early fourth century BCE do not touch on f/f relations, but a later fourth century comedy by Amphis has a humorous treatment of the myth of Artemis and Callisto. In his version, Callisto is unaware that the Artemis she had sex with was Zeus in disguise, so when the goddess demands an explanation for her pregnancy, she says the goddess herself is responsible. Artemis, enraged – not by the pregnancy but by Callisto’s insistence that she was impregnated by the goddess – changes her into a bear.
Like many versions of the myth, only a segment of the whole story is presented: the accusation and response. We know that the audience was meant to understand the argument as humorous, because that is the genre Amphis worked in. Even though the sexual encounter itself is (probably) not depicted on stage, the entire theme of the play revolves around the image of an innocent girl willingly engaging in what she believes to be sex with a woman, and believing that this could cause pregnancy.
Although comedies of an earlier era (“Old Comedy”) were rife with sexual humor, the works of that era did not include female same-sex themes. Boehringer infers that this means Athenians of the fifth century BCE would not have considered such relationships to be funny.
But in Amphis’s play, it isn’t the sexual encounter itself that provokes humor, but Callisto’s naïveté and innocence. Callisto is not presented as deviant or unfeminine in embracing f/f sex, only as ignorant.
And yet, this work signals a shift in how f/f sex is treated in public discourse. There is no longer silence. It is a subject that can be spoken of and treated in a comic context.
This is still far from the framing of f/f sex that we see in later Roman satire. But that shift may not be purely a Greek-Roman distinction. Boehringer sees evidence of a shift to a more negative view of f/f sex in the structure of a poetic anthology compiled by the Greek poet Meleager in the first century BCE, and how it handled the inclusion of Asclepiades’ epigram on the Samian women.
The creation of poetic anthologies that collected, selected, and organized existing works – perhaps with additions by the anthologist - was a common practice at the time. The treatment of the Samian women epigram across multiple anthologies shows how understanding of its subject matter changed.
Early collections didn’t treat the poem as distinct from the other epigrams of sexual frustration that Asclepiades wrote. But Meleager, working in the early first century BCE, paid particular attention to the organization of erotic poems in his collection, creating groups and sequences on particular themes.
Boehringer sees significance in how the Samian poem is preceded by several poems in the voice of marginal women (prostitutes and entertainers) making votive offerings, and is followed by one of Meleager’s own works in which he rejects having sex with boys and expresses his desire for women. This context, then, reinforces a sexual interpretation of the relationship between the Samian women, and juxtaposes it with a rejection of same-sex relations (though perhaps an individual rejecting by the author). Female same-sex love is removed from the realm of sexual variation and placed in the realm of rejected practices.
The chapter sums up the bare-bones of the Greek data. In the Archaic period, women’s same-sex relations were not included in the category of sexual relations, although they were considered erotic. During the Classical period, women’s same-sex relations are not a topic of public discourse or representation because they are not part of the social sphere. During the Helenistic period, women’s same-sex relations begin to emerge into public discourse and are recognized as sexual. But throughout these shifts, two constants are an absence of moral condemnation and a lack of differentiation of sexual or gender roles between the two partners.
For Rome as for Greece, the category of biological sex was secondary to status based on class (free versus unfree) and nationality (resident versus foreign). Sex had legal and social relevance primarily for the free-born citizen class. Sexual practices were judged and categorized based on social status and the nature (and roles) of the sexual act. This system did not generate any categories corresponding to “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality”.
Although there were parallels, there were also some significant distinctions between Greek and Roman sexual attitudes. For example, the age-difference relationships that Greek society licensed between free-born males, were viewed differently in Rome, where it was considered shameful for a future male citizen to be a sexual object. But although erotic attraction to adolescent boys was also a theme in Roman society, the only approved form was with non-citizen boys. At the same time, Romans idealized the Greek form of pederasty despite its contradiction with Roman mores.
For both men and women of the Citizen class, the driving factor in sexual ethics was the maintenance of pudicitia (roughly: modesty), which meant different things for men and women. The opposite of pudicitia was stuprum (roughly: shame).
For men, this meant not only limitations on what sexual roles were permitted, but a whole range of actions and restrictions that defined “manliness”. Engaging in sex with men was not stuprum as long as one didn’t engage in forbidden modalities and roles. Whereas relations with women might result in stuprum if certain boundaries were crossed.
For women, pudicitia meant restricting all sexual activities to permitted contexts and partners (specifically: one’s husband), but also restricted the possibilities for approved marriage partners. One can’t predict what Roman attitudes toward f/f sex would be by focusing on the sex of the partners, but some clues can be found by considering the structure of social categories and identifying the limited set of contexts in which the sex of both partners is relevant to how the act is classified. Just as there is no clear dividing line between licit and illicit sex for men based solely on the sex of the partner, one cannot assume that there was any sexual category for women defined solely by involving a female partner.
The earliest Roman sources—from the third century to late first century BCE—make no reference to sexual or erotic relations between women. The earliest such references that do appear (around the beginning of the first century CE) include the works of Ovid, as well as a reference in Horace.
The next section examines the Sappho poem in the Heroides, a series of works in which Ovid gives voice to the romantic complaints of a variety of women from history and legend. Boehringer’s approach here is to examine how Roman writers dealt with the image of Sappho as a lover of women, to map out a tradition of how Sappho's relationships were treated, and to see what that can tell us about Roman attitudes within their own culture.
The popular image of Sappho in Greek sources had shifted from an esteemed poet in the Classical era to the subject of comedies in the fifth and fourth century BCE, when she was depicted as having many male lovers. A later biography of the second century CE draws on this comic material, including a reference to her being a lover of women, but this characterization may well be a later addition. Positive references to Sappho’s poetry become common again in the Helenistic . But there is still no connection made to sex between women.
Sappho’s poetic works were well-known in Rome. She is referenced by writers, her works are imitated and adapted, and are recognized as erotic. When there is mention of the contents of her work by Horace, he notes that she “complained about the girls of her land” in her erotic songs, but the reference is neutral and not judgemental.
But Ovid’s Heroides moves Sappho from being a vaguely sketched historic figure to being a fully mythologized one, bringing in the Phaon myth and the motif of her suicidal leap.
Boehringer reviews the literary context and genre of the Heroides and compares the Sappho poem with the other items in the work. Ovid shows a personal identification with Sappho as the supreme poet of love, and plays with verse forms and imagery drawn both from Sappho’s own work and later legendary motifs that adhered to her, as he builds up her fictitious autobiography in the poem. He does not retain the comedic image of her as promiscuous with men, but establishes Phaon as her one male love. But he does extensively catalog the women that she loved, in the context of leaving those loves behind. By specifically comparing those relations to the love she now feels for Phaon, it leaves no doubt that her relations with women were erotic. (Keep in mind, this is depicting Ovid’s understanding or characterization of Sappho’s life.)
Boehringer challenges other interpretations of the work that see Sappho as being “masculinized” in the Heroides, and thus connected with the Roman category of tribas (on which more later). Rather, Boehringer sees Ovid’s Sappho as embodying an ideal of reciprocal love, which only appears “masculine” when set against Roman expectations of female passivity and of erotic relations as being inherently unequal.
Similarly, Boehringer challenges interpretations of the references in the poem to Sappho’s female relationships causing “reproach” as indicating condemnation of f/f sex specifically, pointing out that the context emphasizes how numerous and non-specific those relations were, suggesting that it is this element, and not the sex of her lovers, that is the basis for reproach.
Ovid’s Sappho is an inherently worthy and admirable (if tragic) figure. He uses her as an argument for how love poetry should be written. Her love for women is described in the neutral language of eroticism—the same used for male objects. Those loves were, at worst, unimportant, but not disparaged. Thus, although Sappho was not a contemporary Roman figure, her treatment by Ovid suggests that f/f love, per se, was not viewed as an act of stuprum.
Ovid’s major contribution to classical mythology was to bring individual stories together into a single literary work with a unified theme. As stated in the opening lines, that theme for him was “bodies changed into new forms”. When addressing the sub-theme of love, the stories included the pursuit of a desired object, impossible or forbidden loves, and the disappearance of the beloved. The individual episodes are tied together by groups of related motifs and by cross-commentary within the stories themselves. In addition to the internal structure of the stories, because they are set in a mythic past, they are used to explain and comment on the present world. Thus, the story of Callisto not only emerges from background laid out in previous episodes, but is ultimately used to explain some aspect of the world we know (i.e., the fixed nature of the constellations).
The story involves four metamorphoses: male to female and female to male (by Zeus), human to animal and earthly to celestial (Callisto and her son).
But Ovid doesn’t focus (at first) on Callisto’s backstory and context, not even providing her name until late in the story. She is described in contrast to the domestic ideal, with an emphasis on attributes specific to our to Artemis’s followers. She is a soldier, not a maiden, and the only social bond mentioned in this introduction is the one with the goddess, not a family tie as might be expected. And she is described as being in the highest faver of the goddess.
Thus: Zeus burns with desire for Callisto (a woman with masculine characteristics). Callisto and Diana have a special bond even within their woman-only society. So it seems natural for Zeus to use that bond to get inside Callisto’s defenses by taking the form of someone trusted. Yet Zeus’s purpose also requires him to take the form of someone who could approach Callisto sexually. He engages her in conversation and then kisses her: “not modestly, nor as a maiden kisses.” But when he moves on to embraces, she realizes who he is and struggles in vain against the rape.
There are several shifts in gender focus. Zeus initially is attracted to the boyish Callisto as an erastes for his eromenos—a man for a youth. But when he approaches Callisto, she has set aside her weapons and become a vulnerable girl (in how she is described). It is at this point that Zeus put on Artemis’s appearance. Starting as the desire of a god for a boy, the approach is now as a goddess for a girl, while still keeping the pederastic framing.
The erotic encounter is initially between two women and consensual. Calisto shows no surprise or hesitation in kissing one she believes to be the goddess. It is emphasized that these are not chased, modest kisses. Only when Zeus “betrays himself” in his actions does Callisto realize her partner is not Artemis and she begins to resist.
The discussion dwells on the phrase translated as “by this outrage he betrayed himself”. The phrase “sine crimine” appears nowhere else in the Metamorphoses but echoes Sappho’s line in the Heroides when she says of the women of Lesbos, “whom I have loved to my reproach”. Boehringer speculates that this is a deliberate allusion.
The encounter is full of comic references but the comedy comes from the unequal distribution of knowledge not from the sexual situation. Like other myths involving sexual identity, bathing is a context for knowledge and transformation. However in this case, it isn’t knowledge of the character’s sex that is revealed but knowledge of Callisto’s pregnancy which, in turn, was caused by Zeus’s dual sexual transformations. And unlike other stories involving a bathing Artemis and transformation, it is not an intrusive viewer who is transformed, but the person viewed: the pregnant Callisto who is then subject to Juno’s jealousy, resulting in her transformation to a bear and then to a constellation.
In contextualizing the embrace between the female Zeus/Artemis and Callisto, the author notes the overall fluidity of the mythic universe. Forms are not fixed, humans can become animals, animals become stars. Masculine and feminine intermingle. Gender is not yet tied to sex. The gender relationship between the desiring person (Zeus/Artemis) and the desired (Callisto) shifts multiple times, encompassing multiple gender modes on each side and moving from mutual and consensual to one-sided rape. But the mode in which a female lover kisses and is kissed by a female beloved is fleeting and over-written by the heterosexual outcome.
Boehringer frames this as Ovid’s explanation for the absence of this mode of love within his own (Roman) society. As with Ovid’s Sappho, he focuses on f/f love at the moment in time when it is left behind in the past.
Ovid also composed one of the longest texts dealing with love between women from the Roman period—the story of Iphis, also from the Metamorphoses. In brief, a poor man of Crete tells his wife they can’t afford to raise their expected child if it’s a girl. So a girl child would be killed. The child being a girl, at the recommendation of the goddess Isis, the mother conceals its biological sex and raises it as a boy. The name Iphis is given and noted as being a name that might be borne by either gender. Iphis is betrothed to a neighbor’s daughter Ianthe, and the two are deeply in love, but Ianthe believes Iphis to be a boy and Iphis believes her love for Ianthe to be an impossibility. (Recall that one of Ovid’s themes is “impossible loves”.) Iphis’s mother prays to the goddess Isis for help, when the long masquerade is about to be revealed. Isis transforms Iphis into a boy and then the marriage is celebrated.
The source of Ovid’s tale is most likely a now lost collection of myths by the second century BCE Greek writer Nicander, preserved in a circa 200 CE collection by the Roman author Antoninus. [Note: the text has a typo, dating Nicander to the 2nd century CE, not BCE. This confused me until I double-checked Nicander’s Wikipedia entry.]
Nicander’s version called the protagonist Leukippos, and is presented as an explanatory myth for a Cretan coming of age ritual in which boys, having dressed temporarily in female clothing, remove it to mark their passage into manhood. Nicander's version evidently does not include the elements of same-sex love. The trigger for the divine intervention is when Leukippos' growing beauty threatens to betray her biological sex. [Note: So many assumptions there!]
The two versions have different emphases, both in terms of narrative detail and proportion of text. Antoninus focuses more on the cross-dressing while Ovid focuses more on the transformation. Ovid omits the motif of explanation for a ritual. And, most importantly, in the Leukippos story, the “disruptive element” is the character’s maturing, while in the Iphis story, it is the “impossible” love between Iphis and Ianthe. If (as Boehringer presumes) the version we have of the Leukippos story is complete, then the motif of same-sex love and impending marriage is a novel addition by Ovid.
The Leukippos version can be read as a story of the feminized boy leaving the sphere of women to become a man. The figure of Leukippos is entirely passive in the story with all relevant actions being taken by her mother. In contrast, the mother of Iphis acts—not out of her own initiative—but in obedience to the goddess. And Iphis plays a more active and visible part in the story. Her desires and the internal debate about them take up a substantial part of the story. Moreover, while Leukippos can be seen as inherently male, but confined within the female sphere, the essence of Iphis’s story is that she is not male and this is what creates the conflict.
Ianthe is not only a character of Ovid’s addition, but she too is an active participant. She is not a passively pursued beloved but actively returns Iphis’s love and desires the planned marriage.
The role of the gods also differs between the two stories. In the Leukippos story, the presiding goddess who enables the transformation is Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, who preside over the initiation ceremonies of boys and girls respectively. Leukippos’s mother decides on her own to defy her husband’s command about a daughter, and only involves the goddess later. In Ovid’s version, Isis is substituted and it is she who tells the mother to conceal her child’s sex. But a variety of other goddesses are present in complementary roles: easing the birth, blessing the eventual marriage. Leto acts to support and protect the mother, while Isis acts to protect and support Iphis. Isis was seen specifically as a protector of women, and her substitution erases elements that connected the story to a boy’s rite of passage.
The authorial commentary in the story of Leukippos situates it among other myths of sex change. Ovid does not directly relate Iphis’s story to other sex change myths, beyond the general theme of “metamorphosis” in the collection as a whole, and the presence of other sex change myths within that collection. Rather, the overt connections are with other “impossible love” myths, such as Pasiphae and the bull.
Add this point Boehringer posits the interpretation that, despite the superficial reading, the story of Iphis is, fundamentally, not a myth about change of sex.
In interpreting the gender of the Leukippos /Iphis character it is essential to keep in mind the trope of pre-adolescent boys having a beauty that was framed as feminine. Iphis is described as having the kind of beauty suitable for either a boy or a girl, thus her appearance does not betray her biological sex. She “looks like a boy who looks like a girl.” The visual similarities between Iphis and Ianthe is noted. Iphis dresses like a boy, but is not otherwise described in masculine terms. Iphis and Ianthe receive an education together, rather than being separated by gendered expectations. (This co-education is an anachronism for the supposed setting of the story.) There is no mention of Iphis being socialized with the boys or engaging in male-coded activities like sports and hunting. Even the age at which her marriage is arranged is appropriate for a girl but younger than the age at which boys were considered marriageable. Ovid consistently presents Iphis as a maiden (virgo) and describes her as understanding herself as a girl. Iphis falls in love with Ianthe as a girl, and not because masculine socialization has situated her to desire women.
The marriage plan brings in another gender disruption in the identical ages of the couple. Normal Roman practice was for the husband to be a minimum of 4 to 5 years older than his bride.
A comparison is made to another cross-dressing romance story, that of Leukippe and Theonoe. The woman Leukippe dresses as a (male) priest of Apollo per the god’s instruction and comes to Caria where she encounters her sister Theonoe, who doesn’t recognize her and takes her for a man and falls in love with her. In the story, Leukippe recognizes her sister and a possible incest storyline is avoided by her discouragement. This also means there is no self-aware same-sex love involved. In this and several other cross-dressing romantic encounters, but desire is always heterosexual—the people involved only love when they believe the beloved to be of the opposite sex. The existence of these other stories would have set up Ovid’s audience to expect that Ianthe would fall in unrequited love, not that Iphis would love Ianthe. The dominant theme of the second half of Ovid’s story is no longer the cross-dressing motif, but if Iphis wrestling with what it means to be a woman who loves a woman.
Isis, the central goddess of all the story, was an Egyptian deity whose cult had become popular in Rome. She had a number of attributes, but one that Ovid emphasizes is her association with the moon, a symbol of ambivalence and intermediate states.
In contrast to the Leukippos story, Isis intervenes before Iphis is born, urging her mother to conceal her sex if a girl. Isis takes initiative, rather than responding to a human’s plea. And rather than other possible actions, such as ensuring Iphis is born a boy, or changing her father’s heart, what she does is to predict (perhaps ensure) that Iphis will be born a girl, to require that Iphis be concealed and protected, and to promise that she will provide additional aid if requested. On the cusp of the wedding Iphis’s mother brings her to Isis’s altar and begs the goddess for help as promised.
The central feature of the second half of the story is Iphis’s extended monologue about her desire and its failure to fit in her understanding of the world. The speech follows a conventional form, beginning with complaint and blame, presentation of counter examples drawn from the natural world and mythology, an exhortation, a description of the obstacles stated both in negative and positive form, and a conclusion about the impossibility of the situation and an appeal to the goddess for assistance.
Within the speech Ovid gives Iphis beliefs that he knows to be false, e.g., that love between women is completely unknown. Ovid—but perhaps not Iphis—knows the story of Sappho and of Callisto, and tells them in forms that clearly recognize the same-sex relationships involved. [Note: Iphis also laments that love between females is unknown among animals, but Ovid must have been aware of myths involving sex between female animals such as weasels and hyenas—myths presented as fact by classical philosophers.]
Iphis catalogs things that might present an obstacle to love (such as a protective father or jealous husband) that do not apply in her case. The only obstacle is natura, which makes her situation all the more frustrating. She challenges Juno and Hymen, deities of marriage, asking why they are present when there is no husband but only two brides. There is no language for a woman marrying a woman—all terms are gendered for a heterosexual union. But despite the lack of language, there is absolutely no ambiguity about the central problem.
The problem that they beg Isis to solve is not that Iphis is really a boy, but that Iphis needs to be able to marry the woman she loves. As Boehringer puts it, “the sex change is a means, not an end.” And as the story states explicitly, it is not the only possible means. Ianthe could be transformed instead. The identity of the two must become in contrast. After Isis performs the change, Iphis takes on the physical characteristics of a man: darker skin, greater strength, shorter hair, a longer stride. These are all fairly superficial changes. (There is no mention of but God is granting if mail genitals.) The essential metamorphosis is from an impossible love (between women) to a love that is allowed by nature.
The changes Ovid makes to the Leukippos story are specifically in order to be able to address the topic of love between women. Boehringer reviews various psychological analyses of the story and how it relates to gender identity, but Boehringer feels the structure of the story itself contradicts those interpretations. The resolution negates the possibility of successful f/f love (but not of same-sex love generally) and in that context the ending is not “happy”, but is the acceptance of failure.
Given the variety of romantic and sexual possibilities illustrated in the Metamorphoses (through not always positively), why is this one singled out for impossibility? All of the loves that are framed as possible involve a power differential in which one lover “possesses” and the other is “possessed”. Two women may love, but fulfillment requires sex, which requires an act of possession. The essential rules that make this an impossible love are that a relationship must involve at least one man, and cannot involve partners of equal status. This aligns with the basic Roman attitudes towards sex (and differ from earlier Greek views on f/f love). As with Sappho and Calisto, Ovid presents f/f love to his audience at the point when he erases it.
And yet, paradoxically, in order to deny the possibility of f/f love, Ovid must recognize it and describe it, thus creating and acknowledging it as imaginable.
While earlier references to f/f relations focused on emotions, with the start of the Common Era, Roman literature introduces different attitudes. The category of “tribade,” although derived from the Greek word “tribas” (from “tribein”, to rub), has its earliest surviving mentions in Latin texts. It was clearly in use previously as it appears in multiple texts at a similar era.
The fables of Phaedrus were inspired by those of Aesop, being short stories with a moral ending. One of them provides a comic “explanation” for the existence of certain sexual types: molles mares and tribades. The story tells that when Prometheus was in the process of creating human beings out of clay, one day he got drunk with Bacchus after a session of creating genitals, and accidentally put female genitals on male bodies and vice versa, resulting in “perverted pleasures” (pravo gaudo). This follows a separate fable of Prometheus in which he is said to have made male genitals out of the same material as women’s tongues, explaining their “similar obscenity”.
Although the contextual meaning of “tribades” cannot be derived from pre-existing examples, “molles” is known from other contexts. The literal meaning “softness” was applied to men whose sexual or gendered behavior differed from the norm in specific ways. Along with “impudicus” and “pathicus” it indicated traits that were considered feminine, with the extreme being the “cinaedus”. These terms covered a range of behavior involving dress, grooming, and speech, but also taking a passive role in sex including, but not limited to, enjoying being penetrated. So the “molles mares” are presumably the set of Prometheus’s creations that have the superficial appearance of men but are essentially feminine. Thus we have a connection between sexual desire and a category of men defined by something other than biological sex.
The text is not specific whether the superficial sexual category (i.e., the one people are assigned by society) is the one corresponding to the genitals or to the body they have been attached to. If one takes the ordering of the description in the text as parallel, then tribades are those who have female genitals on male bodies, and molles have male genitals on female bodies. Some historians have interpreted the reverse, that it is the genitals that drive sexual desire, therefore the molles have (female) genitals that want to be penetrated, while the tribades have (male) genitals that want to penetrate. This would connect the latter with the image of the tribade with an enlarged clitoris. The second interpretation would suggest that there should be other references to molles as having feminine genitals (given the numerous textual references to them) but this doesn’t appear to be the case. (Boeheringer discusses this question at length.)
So if we return to reading the genital substitutions in parallel order, with the genitals marking the socially assigned sex and the “body” representing the “orientation”, then the new category of tribas must represent a physiological female whose desires and social actions are coded as male.
For both the mollis and the tribade, the “perversion” involved is not homosexuality as modernly defined, but taking pleasure in something inappropriate to one's sex. [Note: as Williams and others have noted, the mollis and his lover do not belong to the same sexual category – the same “gender identity” if you will - because his partner is an active/penetrative man, or even in some cases a “active” woman. I other references to tribades, we see that the category is not exclusive to women to take a "male" sexual role with other women, but can also include women to take an active/penetrative role with a male partner. When historians talk about classical Roman society not having concepts that correspond to homosexuality and heterosexuality, this is what they mean: not that Roman society didn't recognize the phenomenon of persons of a particular biological sex engaging in sex with other persons of the same biological sex, but rather that their conception of those relations was not organized around seeing both partners as belonging to the same definable category.]
The molles and tribades are not placed in a single conceptual category on the basis of some shared attribute, such as "having the behavioral nature of the other sex". There is also no indication in this text of the later motif of tribades as having a phallic clitoris. And despite the joke in a previous fable about penises and women’s tongues being made of the same material, there is no clear indication that he is implying cunnilingus between women. In all Phaedrus’s discussions of sexual immodesty or depravity, the focus is on the acts of an individual with respect to their assigned social/gender role, with no consideration of the nature of their partner. However the fable does suggest an “essentialist” view of sexual preferences – that certain people behave sexually and socially in certain ways due to their inherent nature. But the categories defined by this nature do not correspond to modern categories of sexual orientation. They do correspond to categories but to different categories than modern ones.
There are vague similarities here to the myth of the "two-bodied persons" in the Symposium, but both the nature of the resulting categories and the attitude of the narrator to these categories is different. Phaedrus is making fun of origin myths, at the same time that he’s mocking effeminate men and masculine women as being the result of a drunken mistake. But without the context of further references to tribades in Phaedrus's time (as we have for molles) we can’t tell whether the depiction here is a reflection of popular attitudes, or a comic exaggeration, or a complete invention.
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.]
Following Seneca’s quote of the use of “tribade,” in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, uses of the term in Latin are closely connected with astrological literature, and appear in very similar formulas (some clearly deriving from each other or from a common original), such that we can derive additional context from similar formulas that use other language, as well as context from Greek astrological literature that uses the Greek form of the word. Boehringer provides a chronology of the exact sources, with their dates and the word forms used in them. In addition to Greek and Latin forms of “tribas,” parallel astrological references introduce the term “fric(a)trix,” which derives from a similar meaning (to rub).
The astrological texts have the general purpose of explaining a wide variety of types of behavior in terms of the person’s astrological influences. In all cases, the behaviors in question deviate from the norm. The general formula for tribades/fricatrices is that some star or planet is located under a “masculine sign” and therefore causes women to be sexually attracted to women, sometimes using the word tribade. The more specific explanation of why and how this influence acts is various, and additional understanding can be found in how the same or parallel configurations affect men. For example, in certain examples the configuration causes women to be tribades and men to be excessively attracted to women (i.e., it influences both sexes to have increased attraction to women). In other conjunctions women become tribades but men are impotent or eunuchs (i.e., it causes each sex to become more like the other sex). In yet another version, a “masculine” conjunction causes women to be tribades while the parallel “feminine” conjunction causes men to be effeminate or sterile. Women who are influenced to be tribades may also behave in a “virile” fashion in other aspects of their lives.
The same type of explanation may appear without using a specific term for the women, describing them as desiring sex with women. And rather than the word tribade, the text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus describes a conjunction giving rise to the fricatrix who “is loved by women who are fricatrices” in which both partners are given the label, with the implication that there is no distinction of active and passive.
Within this period, the other instance of Frictrix, in Tertullian, is ambiguous in meaning. Tertullian is listing types of people associated with extreme “oral pollution” (which didn’t necessarily derive from sexual activity). While some have interpreted Tertullian’s use as generally meaning “prostitute”, the context suggests that this reading would be redundant, since the women in question have already been described as prostitutes, to which is added, “and who are, themselves, fricatrices too.” This leaves open the possibility that, as in the other example of fricatrix from astrological sources, Tertullian’s text is refering to women who have sex with women. [Note: Possibly with the implication that oral sex is involved.]
Boehringer discusses the social context of astrological literature in general and emphasizes that it concerns itself with characteristics outside the norm (since the norm doesn’t need to be explained) The texts discussed here uniformly describe women’s same-sex unions as outside the norm and immoral. But they do not construct a category of “homosexual orientation” that encompasses both sexes, nor do they consistently construct an understanding of tribades as male-acting. Although a “masculine” astrological influence is common among them, the effects on women are sometimes to make them more “virile” and sometimes to create desire between two “feminine” women.
The references in astrological literature as not describing actual, specific individuals, but rather personality “types”. Boehringer concludes from this that during the 1st and 2nd centuries the “tribade” was a literary construction that can be disregarded. [Note: I may be misunderstanding the text. It seems to me that a literary trope of this type would make no sense unless there were actual real-life behavior that people wanted an explanation for. But it remains that this evidence operates on a theoretical plane, not a concrete one.]
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).
The Satyricon of Petronius includes a fleeting episode in which two women kiss and embrace each other during the “feast of Trimalchio”. Once again, a full understanding of the context of this literary passage is necessary to determine how this scene reflects Roman realities. Trimalchio’s feast is only one episode in the larger work that is the Satyricon and both it and the work as a whole require a lot of background which cannot be summarized here. But in brief, the fictional Trimalchio is a very rich freedman who is showing off his wealth and status by giving an over-the-top banquet. Boehringer notes two important themes. Everything in the Satyricon is a sort of reversal or inversion of ideals. And in particular, the banquet can be viewed as a distorted reflection of Plato’s Symposium, conveying the message that the characters are reaching cluelessly for the values and experiences of that earlier era, but failing to achieve them at every point. Within this context, the episode of the embrace between the women can be seen as motivated by / referring back to the myth of love between two-bodied creatures, but as having no other significant motivation for its specific inclusion.
The two women, Fortunata and Scintilla, are the wives of the two wealthy men present at the banquet, the host Trimalchio and his rival Habinnas. The two women initially serve as proxies for their husbands’ one-up-manship, where they show off the expensive jewelry their husbands have given them, and the husbands make a point of commenting on the cost and value of the objects. The women serve as placeholders for the necessary parts of a high-status life, but without a qualitative function. They are not described as beautiful, they have not provided sons, and their conversation makes clear that their husbands do not feel romantic love for them or treat them with the respect due to a wife.
After the display of jewelry, the two women fall to talking together, laughing and exchanging drunken kisses. They have expressed pleasure and eagerness at seeing each other and are in the middle of embracing each other when Habinnas, the husband of Scintilla, assaults Fortunata by seizing her feet and tipping her backwards over the couch so her garment hikes up above her knees. Fortunata protests, settles herself with her tunic in place again, and “takes refuge in Scintilla’s arms” hiding her embarrassment under a cloth.
Boehringer interprets this incident as a proxy for the two men’s rivalry, with Habinnas treating the women’s actions as if it were a form of adultery, for which a husband has the right to take action. But here he is at fault for a husband only has the right to take action within his own home, not by assaulting the “offender” in their home. The specific form of the assault is a type of symbolic rape (Boehringer goes into the details of the actions and language that support this). But in assaulting Fortunata, he is actually challenging Trimalchio.
The acts of affection between the two women have no social significance or meaning on their own—the characters themselves exist only as display of their husbands’ wealth. And the interruption of their affection gives social meaning to the act only by reframing it as a power struggle between the men.
[Note: Boehringer’s point is primarily that this episode cannot be taken as evidence regarding actual social attitudes toward women—including married women—engaging in sex-adjacent activities, whether at a public banquet or in any other context. However it should still be noted that the author has created a scenario in which two women, wives of indifferent husbands, indulge in erotic activity together, to all appearances as a way of satisfying their unfulfilled desires. Whatever symbolic meaning Petronius intended to give the women’s encounter, this was a scenario that he could envision and that he expected to make sense to his readers.]
As previously discussed, Martial’s epigrams should be understood as witty and satirical commentary on “character types” that illustrate some facet of Roman in/out-group psychology, and not as documentation of specific actual people. The epigram on Bassa follows the typical “set-up, punchline” format.
In the initial part, Bassa is described as a paragon of virtue—a second Lucretia! (Lucretia was a historic figure considered the epitome of female virtue and modesty.) Bassa hasn’t had a succession of husbands, there are no rumors of her having any (male) lover. In alignment with the expectations for a modest woman, she socializes only with women.
The second part reinterprets the same set of facts, beginning with an accusation of scandal. Bassa’s all-female company is no longer innocent as she is their fucker (fututor). But in despite of the use of this word that normally is defined as vaginal penetration, Bassa’s activities are elaborated on as “uniting twin cunts” with man-like lust. The epigram ends with a “Theban riddle” (making reference to the riddles of the Sphinx): adultery with no man involved.
As with many of Martial’s epigrams, the imagery is deliberately crude and shocking. But, also as usual, the point isn’t to present a neutral description of Roman experiences and attitudes, but to present an absurdity or conundrum for humorous purposes. Clearly he doesn’t mean to suggest that all women who engage in superficially modest and virtuous behavior should be suspected of secret vices. Another take-away is that the term fututor, when applied to women, can’t be assumed to indicate penetrative sex. (It implies sex, but perhaps may simply be the most “neutral” term available, unless a less normative act is specifically implied.) Another point is that—as we saw in the hypothetical legal case previously discussed—the application of the term “adultery” to sex between women was not a legal fact. Applying it here via language (adulterium), and in the Satyricon by means of the framework of action-and-reaction, shows that the authors saw a parallel but not that it had the same official status.
[Note: So in terms of envisioning Roman realities, what can this text suggest? Firstly, that Romans could imagine that women could have same-sex encounters within the context of an otherwise respectable life. Secondly, that male authors would consider such encounters to be improper and outside the norm. Thirdly, that sex between women could be imagined to intrude on male proprietary rights (adultery) at a symbolic level, even if not at a legal level. Fourthly, we have a specific sexual technique implied that adds to the repertoire that can be extracted from other texts.]
Juvenal’s satires are very far from an objective record of the society he lived in. Basically (and this is my phrasing, certainly not Boehringer’s) he was yelling at clouds and shit-posting and get-off-my-lawning and kids-these-days-ing to the utmost of his talents. Juvenal’s satires rage at all the vices and degeneracy he feels are destroying Traditional Roman Values™, including debauchery, greed, corruption, and the growing presence of foreigners. [Note: I’m quite certain that if Juvenal had been alive today in the US, he would have been a Fox News commentator.] Unlike Martial, Juvenal often does have specific people in mind as the targets of his pen, though he dodges lawsuits by using partial names. Nor do Juvenal’s satires present a consistent and coherent picture. The claims he makes in one may be completely contradicted by his assertions in another. All of this must be kept in mind when evaluating the truth value of specific claims and statements.
The second satire (after one which lays out his basic arguments) is aimed at pathici (men who take a passive role in sex with other men or have other “unmanly” habits and practices), including a passage written in the voice of a female character, Laronia. Boehringer discusses two laws relating to female and male sexual behavior that are referenced in the passage, particularly concerning stuprum, a concept relating to shameful or degrading sexual behaviors. The passage in the Laronia text referring to sex between women is framed in the negative in order to criticize men more strongly, Roman women, she claims do not lick each other (using fairly tame language to indicate oral sex), while men allow themselves to be penetrated by other men. [Note: the verb in this passage is lambere “lick” rather than the more crude lingere, which comes down to us in the compound cunnilingus. While both have similar denotations, it is the context of usage that tells us that one is more polite than the other.] Women do not claim male social prerogatives by arguing law or wrestling in the gymnasium, but men take up feminine activities such as spinning wool. [Note: it’s unclear here whether the accusation is that men are literally engaging in fiber production or whether “spinning wool” stands in metonymically for female-coded activities in general.]
Setting aside, for the moment, the judgement implied about sex between women, Boehringer points out several understandings that can be extracted from this passage. Criticism of pathici is predicated on an assumption of differentiated roles within m/m sex, and that certain roles are more shameful than others. Indeed, the man who alternates between active and passive roles appears to be more condemned than the man who prefers a passive role. But the description of f/f activity makes no distinction of roles or status. “Media does not lick Cluvia, nor Flora, Catulla.” But there is not the linguistic apparatus for distinguishing licker and lickee as separate roles to be evaluated individually, as we regularly see for sexual activity involving men. The women are not distinguished by age or status, but treated as a single undifferentiated category. From the context of the discussion, the hypothetical women can be presumed to be “respectable” married women rather than prostitutes or courtesans, as the legal context of this discussion involves forms of adultery, which would not apply to prostitutes.
Boehringer’s interpretation is that this passage is not intended specifically to provide an opinion on sex between women in the abstract, but rather to use an accepted view that f/f oral sex is strongly negatively evaluated in order to imply that the behavior of men in the same discussion is even worse than that.
The fictional Laronia’s defense of Roman women is shown to be a rhetorical tactic rather than a claim about actual practice by the appearance in Juvenal’s 6th satire of a long litany of accusations of women’s sexual debauchery. The framing story of this satire is that of a man trying to convince his friend never to marry, by listing all the ways in which women are unworthy of his love. This catalog specifically targets the hypocrisy of wives of citizens, not the behavior of more marginal women, and covers a very wide range of behaviors, not only sexual ones.
But among this catalog is one dramatized scenario in which two women, returning together from a drunken party, literally piss on the altar of Chastity. Following this, they take turns to straddle/ride (equitant) each other, “writhing together beneath the gaze of the Moon.” In context, this is clearly intended to indicate sexual behavior. Even more so than the licking passage, the language indicates the absence of role differentiation and a mutual activity. The two women are of equal status, likely of equal age being described as “milk sisters” (i.e., nursed by the same wet-nurse), and to the extent that the sexual activity is asymmetric, each takes turns at each activity. There is no implication of masculine role-playing or of penetrative activity. (While Juvenal also condemns women who engage in male-coded activities such as athletics, this is done in separate scenarios not related to f/f sex.) Much of Boehringer’s further commentary speaks to the multiple ways in which this scenario violates the expected behavior of modest citizen wives.
Overall, these fictional depictions by Petronius, Martial, and Juvenal present a relatively consistent picture. These are free women of various social ranks, the wives of citizens and freedmen. They are not described as tribades or fricatrixes (although sexual activities implied by those labels are described). There is no parallelism between the way f/f sex and m/m sex is treated. The judgement of m/m sex hinges on an assumption of asymmetry and differentiated roles, while f/f sex does not involve different judgements based on distinctive roles within the sex act. Rather, the negative judgment of f/f sex hinges on the fact that no man is involved. The category of tribas is not a parallel for the category of cinaedus, in the sense of envisioning an overarching category of “people who engage in same-sex sexual activity.” The contrasting categories applied to men who have sex with men are irrelevant to women who have sex with women because they are entirely outside the system of masculine virtue that allows some roles and disallows others. This pattern continues in the next section which looks at “scientific” discourse around sexuality.
[Note: calling these texts “scientific” is stretching things a bit, but I’ll allow that the people writing them considered them to be scientific, in a sense.] This section of the chapter covers a handful of texts that fall generally in the category of non-fiction, as understood by their authors. A secondary theme to this section is “motifs that classical Roman texts do not support,” specifically with respect to physiology and gender role topics.
Boehringer takes a fairly strong position that no texts of the period under consideration support the idea that Greek or Roman cultures associated f/f sex with a specific physiology, in particular with clitoral hypertrophy. The interpretation of various of the Roman sources as supporting the “tribade with an enlarged clitoris” is, she asserts (and I’d go so far as to say, demonstrates) a back-projection based on later material in which that theme is clearly present. Boehringer reviews a number of authors who have interpreted the classical Roman use of tribas as indicating sexual acts involving a macro-clitoris (or at least, as indicating that this was a standard cultural motif at the time). She points out that texts that speak of women “penetrating” someone during sex are referring to f/m sex, not f/f sex. Medical manuals do cover the topic of women with a macro-clitoris, but do not associate it with sexual desire for women or with sex between women. (This also holds for Greek texts.) She specifically notes that the texts that come the closest to suggesting this motif do not hold up (or at least offer no concrete support), including the fable by Phaedrus of Prometheus attaching the “wrong” sexual organs (resulting in same-sex desire) and the epigrams by Martial that refer to a woman as a “fucker” of women. Boehringer reminds the reader that she has similarly previously addressed the topic of the olisbos (dildo) as a marker of f/f sex, and similarly discounted this as an ahistorical projection from later eras. That is, there are references to the use of an olisbos by women for sexual gratification, but not to the use of it by pairs of women for sexual activity. [Note: I’d be interested to see a specific analysis of the line in Lucian about women making love to each other “harnessed to this object built in the shape of licentious parts,” because that strikes me as highly suggestive.]
Manuals of dream interpretation (oneiromancy) include the meanings assigned to a variety of dreams about sexual activity. Although the dreamer is mostly assumed to be male, there are a few interpretations where the dreamer is female and dreaming about sex with another women. Two key points are crucial in trying to use dream interpretations as social commentary on sexual activity. Pairings that are clearly socially disapproved (such as incestuous pairings, or pairings where the male dreamer takes a passive role) are not associated with negative meanings. The interpretation of the dream (positive or negative) comes from other elements of the scenario and don’t systematically correspond to how the scenarios would be evaluated in real life. And with respect to male dreams about sex, there is no “natural category” of interpretations relating to the sex of the partner. Sexual motifs in dreams are categorized as those that “conform to morals,” those “against morals,” and those “against nature.” Incest and oral sex are “against morals,” while the category “against nature” includes sex with oneself, with a deity, with a corpse, with an animal, or a female dreamer having sex with a woman (the only scenario among the sexual dreams in which a female dreamer is mentioned at all). From this it can be seen that “against nature” isn’t by definition “bad” but perhaps more along the lines of “unimaginable, impossible.” All of the sexual scenarios in dreams are divided into those in which the dreamer penetrates the other participant and those in which the dreamer is penetrated by the other participant, with differing interpretations (but, as noted, not ones in which one group is entirely positive and the other negative). Dreams involving two women follow this pattern, specifying different meanings for the dreamer penetrating or being penetrated, however given the unreal nature of the context, it isn’t clear who what extent this indicates distinct sex acts. It’s entirely possible that the rhetorical listing of penetrating/penetrated simply follows the structure set up for the default case (the male dreamer) without consideration for the logistics of the act. [Note: compare, for example, to medieval punishments for sodomy in which women, in parallel with men, are sometimes sentenced to have the “offending member” amputated, without regard for actual anatomy.] Boehringer’s overall conclusion is that the key feature one can draw from the symbolic structure of dream interpretation regarding f/f sex is that such scenarios were entirely outside the sphere of what could be categorized coherently. Unlike m/m sex dreams that could be further sorted into types of acts and participants, f/f sex imagery involved only one relevant feature by which it was classified: the sexes of the participants. And that feature placed it into the category of impossible/unimaginable scenarios that.
Physiognomy was the system of attributing tendencies toward certain behaviors or desires based on anatomical features such as body configuration, facial features, color of eyes and hair, etc. While later manuals of physiognomy discussed features that were associated with f/f desire, Boehringer identifies no texts from prior to the 4th century CE that do so. Neither a propensity for f/f sex nor a “masculine” personality in a woman are included in earlier texts, although features that indicate an effeminate man are present. The earliest inclusion of f/f topics is in an anonymous 4th century CE text and is an addition to the base text it is drawn from which refers only to m/m desire. The male-related text discusses how certain anti-virile features are associated with a man who desires women, in contrast to the more exaggeratedly virile features of a man who “seeks men.” Following this, the 4th century author adds, “It is the same for women: the feminine type (species muliebris) bed down with women, but the virile type (virile speciem) are more likely to seek men.” Note that these correspondences are the opposite of the image of an effeminate man desiring men and a masculine woman desiring women. Rather, in both sexes, the gendered physiognomy “seeks its like” in a partner.
Medical texts from Antiquity do not make any connection with atypical anatomy and same-sex desire in women. Indeed, up to the 5th century CD, this genre doesn’t cover sex between women at all. The earliest known medical text that mentions sex between women (Caelius Aurelianus) covers both male and female same-sex desire as a moral sickness rather than a medical condition (reflecting the dominance of Christian attitudes by that time). The passage is difficult due to corruption of the various manuscript versions that survive, but refers to tribades as practicing “the two forms of love” who “come together with women rather than with men” and who “pursue the women in question with a jealousy almost worthy of men”. Boehringer interprets “the two forms” as indicating alternating or symmetrical roles in sex (as contrasted with an active/passive distinction in roles). She notes that the passage deserves more analysis that she gives it, but that it falls outside the scope of her study.
The final part of this section catalogs various motifs that recur across multiple genres discussing sex between women. A common theme is treating sex between women as something “new” or “never before seen/discussed”. Another is treating it as a paradox—as something inherently contradictory (as in “adultery without a man present”). A third theme is seeing f/f sex as something “prodigious” in the sense of surprising, mysterious, or “monstrous” (with the caveat that “monstrous” can also apply to miracles in this context). It is a spectacle causing surprise and fascination in the audience. A fourth theme is association with the supernatural or the practice of magic (though Boehringer offers only the example of Martial’s female couple engaging in sex alone at night under the moon, a context associated with magic). A fifth theme is association with gender ambiguity—of confusion or playing with images of gender-crossing or existing between gender categories. A sixth theme is that of love/desire that falls outside “natural” categories, associating f/f desire with inter-species love (as in Ovid). In general these discursive themes work to remove f/f sex from the realm of the “real” and into the realm of the fictional, the contradictory, and the purely hypothetical.
The chapter ends with a summary of topics that Classical Roman attitudes toward f/f sex do not include: a masculine appearance, an atypical genital physiology, the use of a dildo, a distinction into active and passive sex roles or maculine/feminine gender roles. Overall, what defines “women who have sex with women” as a single identifiable category is, in part, that such relations fall entirely outside the system of socially defined categories relevant to sexual relations and the illegibility of f/f relations within those categories.
Those familiar with the corpus of classical references to sex between women may have noticed a gap in the material covered up to this point. In a chapter labeled “Epilogue: Lucian and the saturation of signs” Boehringer tackles Lucian’s Dialogue 5 from Dialogues of the Courtesans, in which the narrator describes her sexual interactions with a female** couple who present themselves as “married”.
[**Note: Some discussions and analyses of this dialogue consider Megilla/Megillos through a transgender lens, which makes a great deal of sense when studying the fictional character in isolation. Boehringer discusses the masculine elements in the character’s depiction, but on the whole evaluates Megilla as representing a woman. This makes sense in context, as the question is “what does dialogue 5 tell us about Roman attitudes toward sex between women?” not “what are the possible ways of interpreting the identity and presentation of this fictional character?” Given this, within this post I will follow Boehringer’s approach of using the name Megilla and female pronouns.]
The discussion begins, as usual, with a review of how the text has been interpreted in the past, and the larger context of the Dialogues. Lucian wrote his Dialogues in Greek in the mid 2nd century CE, following a tradition of dialogues created as rhetorical exercises, but using content more related to drama of the New Comedy tradition. As the overt framework of the work is the world of courtesans, it is unsurprisingly populated with the stock figures and plots of that world: prostitutes of all ages and backgrounds, clients ranging from the pleasant to the jealous to the abusive. While many of the individual dialogues can be traced to existing comedic works and themes, the fifth dialogue has no known parallel. Lucian’s fictional setting was Golden Age Athens, but they cannot be understood as representing actual everyday experiences of courtesans either in their setting or in the time they were written.
Furthermore, the fifth dialogue in particular is distanced from “reality” by several layers: Lucian creates a fictional text in which a (fictional) courtesan is relating an off-stage encounter with a third party to a colleague. In addition to Lucian’s own purposes in how he presents the material, there is the question of how reliable the character of Leaina is in descrbing her experience to her friend Klonarion, even aside from the parts that Leaina explicitly states she declines to report. On top of that, there’s the motif of how Megilla reports and frames her own part of the event in talking to Leaina. So even if the text were representing actual people and events at their heart, we would need to sort through the layers of interpretation. Once again, we must understand that this is a fictional depiction and can only convey the author’s view of the world and the elements he chose to present to his audience.
The chapter presents a translation of the dialogue in its entirety, with key vocabulary given in the original Greek. [Note: For a different translation of the text to use as a reference, see my podcast on classical material. I recommend reviewing it to have context.] Boehringer then proceeds to identify the “facts” that can be extracted from the scenario-as-presented and how they support or contradict existing scholarly interpretations.
The dialogue involves four women: the courtesans Leaina and Klonarion, and the clients Megilla and Demonassa. The courtesans are friends, with a certain expectation of honest communication between them. Klonarion has been hearing gossip circulating about Leaina’s ongoing relationship with one of the named clients and wants to know more. They both have Attic names and therefore represent the native courtesan community of Athens.
The clients are identified as “foreigners”, both by the given names they bear and by explicit identification of their origins. Megilla is from Lesbos and Demonassa is from Corinth. In this genre of text, cultural origin is typically used to indicate stock character types, although the characteristics may change over time. At an earlier period, identifying a woman as from Lesbos might have alluded to the island’s reputation for general lustfulness and debauchery. But in this text a specific connection is made to sex between women. “…she is a hetairistria. For they say there are such women in Lesbos, masculine-looking, not willing to have it done to them by men, but preferring to associate with women as men do.” This appears to be the earliest known context in which the island of Lesbos was used to indicate sexual desire between women.
It is less clear what Demonassa’s Corinthian origin is meant to signify. Corinth is sometimes associated with prostitution, but there is no indication in this text that either Megilla or Demonassa is a sex worker. Both women are described as wealthy. They are a couple (Megilla says they’ve been married for some time). They are the ones hosting the drinking party at which Leaina was hired to entertain.
After the party, when Leaina is alone with Megilla and Demonassa, and in the middle of the three of them engaging in sex (about which more in a moment), Megilla takes off her wig, revealing a shaved head “like a manly-seeming athlete,” she suggests that Leaina consider her a “handsome youth” and gives her name in the masculine form Megillos. In response to Leaina’s questioning, Megilla indicates that she doesn’t have male physiology or ambiguous physiology, but has the “mind and desire” of a man. Boehringer notes that Leaina’s narration doesn’t indicate that Megilla had an obviously masculine presentation before this episode. I.e., that during the party and any earlier negotiations, Megilla presumably presented as female in an unremarkable way, such that the later conversation was unexpected. This undermines the interpretation that Megilla represents a “masculine tribade” archetype.
The post-party encounter between the three women is unambiguously sexual. The women kiss with open mouths including some biting, both Megilla and Demonassa embrace Leaina and caress her breasts. And after the gender talk, Leaina “gives herself” to Megilla who “enjoyed herself incredibly”. Leaina is then given the sort of gifts that a client typically gives to a courtesan. Boehringer notes that, contrary to framing Megilla and Demonassa as an active/passive pair, both women are described as taking an “active” role in sexual activity with Leaina, whatever they may do when alone together. Boehringer notes that this is the only one of the dialogues in which pleasure is the outcome of sexual encounters. The framing conversation with Klonarion indicates that Leaina’s professional association with Megilla has continued since then and that Megilla loves her (using a form of eros, not philia) “as if she were a man.” So here’s another item that is presented as imaginable: that a courtesan could be in an ongoing professional relationship with a wealthy female client, and that the relationship would be public knowledge and believed to be sexual.
Leaina the courtesan is curious about her client’s sexual behavior, is amenable to providing the sexual services her client(s) request, and expects to be paid for that by means of valuable gifts. But Megilla is harder to classify. In some aspects she performs a feminine social role (her initial presentation, organizing an all-women party), in other aspects she takes on a male social role (her hidden hair style, claiming a masculine form of her name, calling Demonassa her wife). And Megilla + Demonassa as a couple present an otherwise unparalleled social form: a long-term female couple, whose relationship is overtly sexual, and who as far as we can tell are not married to men or in any sort of sexual relationship to men. They represent the “unimaginable” thing that other authors have danced around or made invisible.
Boehringer concludes by talking about how the dialogue is about the act of story-telling, where Leaina in some way stands in for the author—shaping what parts of the narrative will be revealed or concealed—and Klonarion stands in for the audience. The motifs that Leaina narrates about Megilla represent standard tropes about women who loved women that were in circulation at the time, but only addressed obliquely in other texts. These motifs include: framing f/f sex as shameful, describing f/f sex as new or paradoxical, a context of drunkenness and debauchery, describing f/f sex with the language of m/f sex, the absence of distinctly separate sexual roles, and the assignment of same-sex desire to “foreign” women. But within these motifs, none of them is universal to all the characters in the dialogue. There is no consistent, coherent archetype of the woman who loves women, and therefore the concept once again fails to be legible within the Roman sexual system.
[Note: Despite the discussion of these motifs, I feel that there isn’t quite enough consideration of how the Dialogue does support (or at least introduce) certain stereotypes that Boehringer otherwise concludes were not part of classical Roman understandings of f/f sex. There is a motif of at least one partner being masculinized. And that does at least imply a possible differentiation of roles between partners. I feel that her overall arguments against a concept of f/f sex that involves gendered, differentiated roles are sound. One can see the Dialogue as an outlier from a generally undifferentiated model, as opposed to representing the primary understanding that should be assumed when reading other texts. But this is somewhat glossed over.]
I rather like the conclusions chapter—neither a rote summary of the analysis nor an unrelated philosophical excursion. Boehringer starts by noting that there’s an inherent anachronism in defining the scope of the book in terms of modern categories. Whether you consider that scope to be “female homosexuality” or even the narrower “love and sex between women”, the definition assumes the existence of a category that the research has yet to demonstrated existed in classical Greece and Rome. Her second point is that, in studying a data set that is largely cultural representations of the topic, rather than direct records of it in everyday life, we are still looking at “reality.” Texts such as the Satyricon are just as much a part of Roman reality as the real-life dinner parties that we can appreciate only through a filtered lens, in the same way that the characters and stories appearing in contemporary advertising or television shows are “part of our reality”. They are not the whole story, but are an integral part of it and provide useful data.
The largest part of Boehringer’s conclusions involve recognizing the asymmetry and non-binary nature of classical Greek and Roman systems of gender and sex. With regard to gender, the societies under study did not revolve around a gender binary of male/female, but rather a central reference point of “dominant, virile, male citizen” with all other social categories operating in contrast. There were no “natural categories” defined solely by biological sex that people identified with, and that affected their experience of the world. Given that “male human being” was not a cultural category, it follows that “male homosexual” cannot be a cultural category, particularly in light of the expectations and judgments that shaped how sexual pairings were evaluated.
But the asymmetry of all categories being defined and understood in relation to a central model that is (among other things) biologically male means that love/sex between women will always fall outside the frameworks and structures that are defined in relation to that model. A m/m pairing will always be evaluated with respect to whether it follows the hierarchical rules regarding “male virtue/honor”. Those rules by definition will be irrelevant to a f/f pairing. F/f pairings are not legible within the existing system. One obvious effect of that illegibility is the dearth of surviving documentation regarding them, as they simply weren’t culturally important. Another effect is that when they are discussed (by elite male authors), there will generally be a sense of incoherence—an absence of inherent meaning as an independent concept.
But, that said, it is still possible to extract themes and motifs relevant to love/sex between women. They are not universal or consistent, but are recurring across time.
Individually and in isolation, these themes have given rise to conclusions about classical female homosexuality that Boehringer considers to be inaccurate, such as the archetype of the hypersexual, macro-clitoral, masculine tribade (which certainly appears as a motif in much later ages), or the image of a sentimental non-erotic love between equals (similar to the ideals of 19th century romantic friendship). But even when such conceptual connections can validly be traced, the elaborations and social forms found in other ages should not be projected back onto classical societies in their later forms. Social categories have meaning only within the cultural systems that developed them. But (Boehringer emphasizes) one of the modern cultural systems that cannot be projected onto classical societies is the assumption of symmetry between “male pre-homosexual” concepts and “female pre-homosexual” concepts. The evidence and arguments that scholars such as David Halperin bring to bear on the question of “male homosexuality” in pre-modern times are not necessarily relevant to the question of “female homosexuality”. And, to a certain extent, Boehringer does think that a concept roughly identifiable as “female homosexuality” existed in classical Greek and Roman society (assuming I have not drastically misunderstood her), even though it cannot be equated with modern sexual orientation concepts.