Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
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.]