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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #76 Auanger 2002 “Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence”

Full citation: 

Auanger, Lisa. “Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Auanger, Lisa. “Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence”

Given how uninhibited Roman art could be at times, one might thing it would be a good source for depictions of female homoeroticism, but this ignores the issues of who was producing the art, for whom, and for what purpose. Symbolism, both in its presence and absence, relies on the cultural context that gives it meaning. Looking for "lesbian images" in Roman art raises the question of what those images would look like, if they exist. Auanger tackles these questions through a broad range of visual artifacts.

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Homoeroticism cannot be identified in historic contexts without letting go of modern notions of what it would look like or what other relationships it would be compatible or incompatible with. There are few explicit images of sexual activity between women in Roman art. Brooten (1996) gives two examples of female homoeroticism, only one of which is sexual: a grave relief of two freedwomen clasping hands (dextrarum iunctio) in a manner normally used to symbolize marriage, and a wall painting from Pompeii that appears to show two women engaging in oral sex. When the category of female homoeroticism is defined to include behaviors and words that express deep personal attachment, including "romantic friendship," it may be portrayed in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or physical ties that don't necessarily read as overtly sexual.

Images suggestive of female homoeroticism can be decoded by comparison to the iconography of heterosexual relations, including symbols of marriage, courtship, and desire. The most direct evidence for sexual activity between women often comes from polemical condemnations, providing vocabulary such as tribas and fricatrix. But when all types of evidence--and ranges of relationships--are considered, there is a considerable body of material from across the Roman world.

Auanger presents a range of examples, covering the 2nd century BCE through the 6th century CE, that indicate intimacy between women and give hints at the possibility of a wider continuous tradition of female homoeroticism that escaped record.

Condemnation of women's "deviant" sexuality must be understood in the context of what norms were being violated. A reference to two women enjoying a dildo in the temple of Pudicitia may be condemning public sexuality or violations of sacred spaces, rather than addressing the same-sex aspect specifically. A 6th c. poem by Luxorius chastising a girl "whom enforced lust turns into a man" and who is "passive and also active" may be policing gender roles rather than sexual partners. But legal and polemical texts do not, in general, condemn expressions of affection between women, such as kissing, hugging, and intimate touching, so these may not have been viewed as sexually transgressive despite falling under the broad category of eroticism.

One difficulty in interpreting Roman evidence as "Roman" is the degree to which artistic representations were often copied from Greek originals, as well as the degree to which female homoeroticism was coded as "foreign" and especially as Greek. Quotations of Sappho's works and discussions of her life provide a significant corpus of the Roman evidence for homoeroticism but have questionable relevance for Roman women's activities (as opposed to Roman men's attitudes). Even when Roman authors condemned or undermined her desire for women, these commentaries provide an understanding of how such a desire was understood. (The article provides texts and commentary on a selection of these writings.)

Roman visual art is rarely if ever accompanied by explanatory text indicating how to understand such signifiers as touch, gaze, physical proximity, and position. Extrapolating from heteroerotic scenes can provide an approximation to understanding when we may interpret homoerotic intent. Mythologic themes involving all-female groups such as the Muses, Graces, and Maenads frequently read as homoerotic via signifiers such as nudity and caressing of the shoulders and breast. The Graces may be staged in a parallel context with erotes, strengthening the erotic interpretation. The Muses were commonly associated with Sappho, not only in the latter being named "the tenth Muse", but in being associated with Lesbos, a location with erotic associations even when not specifically homoerotic. They are frequently depicted enjoying an all-female assembly in which they gaze on each other and perform for each other. Their postures are reflected in depictions of mortal musicians with female listeners embracing each other during the performance.

Representations of female homoeroticism involving the goddess Aphrodite/Venus are notable. Women are portrayed as receiving advice and assistance from the goddess in their romantic affairs, and this interaction is often depicted visually as involving embraces and other close contact. The goddess may be understood as inflaming passion in the woman in preparation for a human lover. This is a view of homoeroticism ("preparing a woman for heterosexual love") that is often looked askance from a modern point of view but may have been part of the Roman homoerotic continuum.

The presence in art of erotes (i.e., cupid-like figures) was a regular indication of an erotic context. Therefore depictions of pairs or groups of women in an all-female context, accompanied by erotes creates a strong suggestion of homoerotic intent.

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