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LHMP #217 Hubbard 2003 Homosexuality in Greece and Rome

Full citation: 

Hubbard, Thomas K. 2003. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 978-0-520-23430-7

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This is an invaluable book that collects all manner of classical Greek and Roman texts relevant to homosexuality in a single volume. I doubt that it’s exhaustive, especially with regard to male homosexuality, but Hubbard seems to have made special efforts to include female-oriented material. The material is organized chronologically and by literary genre, with an introductory discussion in each section to provide historic context.

My presentation here will cover only the female-related material and will provide a summary of each item. But even though the percentage of the work involved would probably put full quotations within the scope of public domain, the variety of approaches to translation mean that the full context is important. For example, Martial’s epigrams are translated in a very colloquial, slangy style which--while it gives the emotional impact of the original--isn’t necessarily reliable for the technical content.

As an over-broad generalization, classical Greek and Roman society embraced an understanding that a preference for particular types of sex acts or particular types of partners could be an inborn, essential personal trait, either from a genetic, physiological, or astrological cause. But this understanding of “preference” was neither limited to the gender of the partner, nor expressed in a way that corresponds to modern ideas of “sexual orientation.” It was considered normal for a person to have an appreciation for the beauty of same-sex bodies, but the accepted contexts and modes for expressing that appreciation were different across the scope of this collection.

There is, of course, far more material relating to relations between men, due to the greater cultural focus on men in these strongly patriarchal cultures, and because of the effects of several layers of filtering on the material that survives for us: the filter of who had the literacy to record texts, the filter of what subjects were considered worth recording (and what attitudes towards them were popular), and the filter of which of those texts were considered worth propagating down the ages.

One significant difference between the Greek and Roman material is that the Greek tradition of pederasty as a life-stage experience (older men soliciting relationships with young men on the cusp of adulthood) was not part of the accepted core of Roman sexual morals. Roman attitudes viewed (male) same-sex sexuality through the lens of “active” and “passive” roles that were supposed to align with differences in status (men > women, free men > slaves, older > younger).

There is some indication of shifts in sexual attitudes -- or at least shifts in the rhetoric about sex -- in response to social and political upheaval. In particular, the transition from the Roman republic to the empire correlates with a number of changes in sex-related rhetoric. (Though there really isn’t enough evidence to know how this applies to women.)

[Note: there are several topics that are essential to understanding Greek and Roman sexual dynamics that are more or less assumed to be familiar to the reader. These include the relative legal status of women, and the nature of classical slavery and attitudes toward the legal and social status of enslaved persons.]

The introduction concludes with a discussion of various artistic conventions employed, especially in Greek art, that signal the nature of the relationships between the figures being portrayed. That is, given two people depicted in art, how can we know that they are being depicted as involved in a romantic or sexual relationship? The motifs specifically relevant to women’s relationships include: one person touching the chin of the other (a courtship gesture that continued with this meaning into the medieval period), two women wrapped in a single cloak, touching of the genitals. [Note: for more discussion on this topic and how to interpret such images, see Rabinowitz 2002]

Chapter 1: Archaic Greek Lyric (roughly 7-5th centuries BCE)

This is the genre in which Sappho’s poetry falls. Both for her and for a few other authors, the genre of “maidens’ songs” is particularly relevant. These were written to be performed by groups of young women, generally (it is believed) in a context of ritual initiations or marriage. Some of Sappho’s songs imply a context of a young woman leaving the homo-social company of other women, presumably for marriage, while others simply celebrate relationships within that company but usually with the implication of an age-difference relationship, as with male pederastic relationships. [Note: I caution the reader not to connect the word “pederastic” in this context with the modern meaning of “child molestation.” Although there was an age difference involved, the ideal age for the younger partner was the very beginning of adulthood, not pre-adolescence.] Some of the poems have been interpreted as reflecting age-mate relationships, as is the case for one of Alcman’s maiden songs which has been variously seen as either refering to relationships within the female chorus, or to a possible same-sex betrothal.

Alcman - First Maiden’s Song - Scholars variously interpret this as an initiation song or perhaps celebrating the betrothal of Agido and Hagesichora, the two (female) leaders of the choruses performing it. The content includes praise of the beauty and excellence of the two named women and depictions of the two together presiding over the feast.

Sappho - multiple works- Only a few poems are substantial enough to provide a detailed context for their content. Most express praise, admiration, love, jealousy, or longing for their female subject. Even aside from assuming either Sappho or a female chorus as the speaker, a few clearly indicate the emotions are being expressed by Sappho herself. In a number of the fragments, the context is clearly feelings expressed for a woman who is leaving for marriage, or other marriage-related content (such as dialog between a woman and her virginity/girlhood). These suggest the image of a life-stage association with the speaker acting as an admirer or lover. The emotion of loss is genuine, but expected. In other poems, there is no implication of marriage as the context, and the admiration may be implied to be mutual and continuing. The numbers are the standard reference numbers given to Sappho’s work. I’m only including the ones that have overt homoerotic content. For a detailed examination of the original language and its interpretation, I recommend Snyder 1997.

  • 1. The “hymn to Aphrodite” in which Sappho (by name) beseeches the goddess of love, who promises to turn the heart of a female beloved toward her.
  • 16. A litany of things that people find “most fair” including Helen, that ends with the poet identifying Anactoria as her choice.
  • 31. Perhaps the most familiar of Sappho’s works “He seems like a god to me...” in which she describes the physical sensations of desire for a woman, when seeing her accompanied (perhaps being courted) by a man.
  • 49. A couplet referring to her love for a woman named Atthis.
  • 94. On the occasion of a woman unhappy at having to leave Sappho against her will, the poet reminds her of a number of sensual scenes from their past.
  • 96. The poet consoles Atthis (perhaps the same as above) for the departure of a beloved friend.

Anacreon - fragment 358 - The poet complains that Eros has caused him to love a woman who, being from Lesbos, loves another girl instead.

Chapter 2: Greek Historical Texts (covering a wide time period)

Primarily (putatively historical) stories about male couples whose devotion inspired those around them.

Plutarch Lycurgus (a discussion of Spartan customs attributed to the lawgiver Lycurgus) - A brief excerpt that indicates that Spartan women may have participated in a system similar to male pederastic bonds. “[Male] lovers shared in the reputation of their boyfriends, whether good or bad. ... Love was so esteemed among them that girls also became the erotic objects of noble women.”

Chapter 3: Greek Comedy, Chapter 4: Greek Oratory - nothing in these sections

Chapter 5: Greek Philosophy (covering a wide time period)

A great many texts discussing love between men. The only one relevant to women includes them as part of the symmetry of the allegory.

Plato Symposium - A long extended myth about how erotic desire came about. The story begins with a claim that originally there were three sexes: male, female, and mixed, each with a doubled body compared to how people are now. In order to weaken them, the gods cut them in half, but now the halves naturally go seeking their “other half” and try to unite with it by embracing and trying to restore their original state. That people’s natural desire will be toward the sex that was their “other half” resulting in the whole array of men with men, women with women, and men with women. People may marry against this inclination for the sake of convention or to produce children, but it doesn’t change their true desires. This myth is often cited in a very simplified form, but the original text is extensive and goes into the nature of erotic love.

Hippocrates On Regimen - A pseudo-medical treatise, using a humoral-based theory to account for how the gender and sexuality of a person is determined, operating from the principle that both mother and father contribute a gendered essence, and that the proportions and the dominance of the parents’ contributions determine the sex and personal inclinations of the child. These inclinations are described more in terms of gender expression. Thus a particular combination of parental contributions can result in a woman who is bold and “mannish”, just as a different combination can result in a man who is “effeminate”. Preference for a particular type of sexual experience or partner is not mentioned in this section, but similar texts use it as an explanation of same-sex desire (on the part of the affected person, but not their partner(s)).

Visual Art

7th c BCE plate from Thera - A courting scene between two women holding crowns. One touches the other’s chin.

6th c BCE - Among a group of people, two women stand facing each other, with a single cloak draped around their shoulders.

6th c BCE - Two Maenads (followers of Dionysus) present an offering of a rabbit to Dionysus. They are standing closely with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

Attributed to Apollodorus (if so, 5th c BCE Athens) - Two naked women: one stands and holds a cup(?), the other crouches at her feet in front of her and touches her genitals. Several possible interpretations are suggested, including both sexual and personal care actions.

Chapter 6: Hellenistic Poetry (covers roughly the 4th to 2nd c BCE, though extended several centuries later in terms of literary influence)

During this period, love between women is less present as a theme than previously, and is not necessarily mentioned positively. The best candidate is the female poet Nossis, who claims Sappho as her model and proclaims love to be her theme, but fills her poetry with appreciation for women’s beauty and shows no interest in men. In the work of Herondas, a woman named Nossis from context, clearly the poet) is mentioned as having borrowed a dildo, which suggests that her contemporaries believed her to have sexual interest in women.

Asclepiades - An epigram accuses two Samian women, Bitto and Nannion, of being lovers, using the goddess Aphrodite as a symbol of specifically heterosexual love whom they disdain.

Nossis - An epigram about the sweetness of kissing Cypris. Two epigrams commenting on wall paintings of women she admires.  A poem in the form of a grave inscription that makes reference to Sappho and Mytilene, a city on Lesbos:

Stranger, if you sail to the land of lovely dances, Mytilene,
To catch fire from the blossom of Sappho’s graces,
Say that a friend to her and the Muses, the Locrian land
Bore me. And knowing my name is Nossis, go on!

Herondas - A satirical dialog in which a woman named Metro asks her friend who made her dildo “the beautifully stitched red leather one” and there follows a discussion of a chain of borrowings of the item, given as a present from one woman to another. (It’s possible that it was intended for solitary use, but the context is clearly one of women collaborating in sexual activity that doesn’t include men.)

Chapter 7: Republican Rome (roughly the 5th through 1st centuries BCE) - nothing relevant

Chapter 8: Augustan Rome (defined by the political prominence of Augustus from 43 BCE to 14 CE)

Ovid Metamorphoses - The story of Iphis and Ianthe can’t be considered a realistic representation of female same-sex relations in Rome. The story is explicitly set elsewhere (Crete) and possibly elsewhen--a common device for distancing the motif of female homoeroticism from the author’s culture. On its face, Iphis and Ianthe is more of a transgender story than a lesbian one. Iphis is raised as a boy due to her father’s stated intention to kill any daughter. In that guise, she and Ianthe fall in love, but Iphis considers the fulfillment of their love as impossible and unnatural. (This is in contrast to Ovid’s casual acceptance of love between men.) On the eve of their wedding, Iphis’s mother prays to Isis to intervene and the goddess transforms Iphis into a man.

Chapter 9: Early Imperial Rome (roughly, the 1st century CE)

References to sex between women in this era are hostile and depict it as involving a “masculine” woman who performs penetrative sex on her “feminine” partner.

Seneca the Elder - Discussion of a legal case involving a man who found his wife having sex with a woman and killed them both. There is an implication that a dildo was used.

Phaedrus - A satirical myth about the cause of homosexuality, attributing it to a drunken Prometheus who, when creating humans out of clay, stuck the wrong gentalia on the figures.

Seneca the Younger - Discussing things that are “against nature,” he attributes women having male-associated medical problems like baldness and gout to their having taken up masculine sexual roles. The specific example given in the text, however, is of such women performing penetrative sex on men (not on women), thus upending “nature” even more.

Martial - Most famous for his bitingly satirical epigrams. He teases both men and women for their non-normative sexual exploits, but the ones directed at women feel nastier. The translations given in this book are very far from literal, aiming to mimic the emotional impact rather than the sense of the originals. The numbers are the standard reference numbers for his works and can be used to look up other versions.

  • 1.90 Addressed to a woman named Bassa, he begins by suggesting that she is a virtuous woman since gossip has never associated her with a man, but then accuses her of “bringing two cunts together” creating the riddle “How can there be adultery with no man present?”
  • 7.67 - Addressed to a woman named Philaenis, listing her masculine-style sexual prowess with both boys and girls, describing her as a glutton, and then insulting her with a particularly Roman twist. Performing oral sex was considered to be degrading--to be unmanly if one were male--but the epigram ends by claiming that Philaenis is “too manly” to suck dick but is happy to perform oral sex on women (which was considered even more degrading).
  • 7.70 - Also addressed to a woman named Philaenis (either the same one, or an alias in both cases), he says that she fucks her girlfriend, using the verb that specifically meant penis-in-vagina sex.

Chapter 10: Later Greco-Roman Antiquity (roughly the 2nd through 4th centuries CE)

This section covers the last group of non-Christian texts associated with the Roman empire. There was a brief revival of Greek literature in the 2nd century and a series of Hellenophilic Roman emperors who enjoyed relationships with men, which at the very least gave philosophers and satirists a lot to talk about in the realm of male-male relations. The variety of texts giving evidence for relations between women expands, although without much change in the attitudes of the male writers to it.

Soranus, as translated by Caelius Aurelianus On Chronic Disorders - A medical manual that attributes non-normative sexual behavior to the suppression of modesty and an excess of lust. He discusses tribads as being sexually active with both men and women, but preferring women and pursuing them “like a man”. He claims that, as with other vices such as drunkenness, tribads bring other women to the practice in order to relieve their own guilt over their behavior. He considers same-sex sexual activity to be a displacement for some other mental or physical ailment and not a primary disorder itself.

Lucian Dialogues of the Courtesans #5 - These are satirical works in the form of conversations, but are not necessarily intended to depict specific contemporaries. The dialog between two courtesans (i.e., somewhat high-class prostitutes) describes how one was hired to entertain two women, Megilla from Lesbos and her wife Demonassa from Corinth. After the courtesan had entertained the two with music, Megilla instructed her to join the two of them in bed. Megilla presented as masculine, including an athlete-style shaved head, asking to be called Megillus (the masculine form of the name), and saying that she was born a woman but had “the mind and the desires and everything else of a man.” The courtesan accepted several expensive gifts as inducement and joined them for a sexual encounter but declined to give precise details other than describing kissing and panting.

Artemidorus Dream Analysis - This is from a manual of dream interpretation. In a section on dreams of a sexual nature, there are two relevant entries. The first interprets dreams of performing oral sex on someone as meaning that enmity will develop between them as oral sex was considered to be impure and it would result in “no longer being possible to share mouths.” An exception is given for those who earn their living from their mouths as with flute players or orators. The second dream type is when a woman dreams of penetrating another woman. It will either mean sharing secrets (if the other woman is someone she knows) or that she will undertake useless projects (if a stranger). But if a woman dreams of being penetrated by a woman, it means she will either separate from her husband or become widowed (but will learn the other woman’s secrets).

Egyptian Love-magic Texts - Two papyrus texts that contain spells to bind a woman to love or desire the woman creating the spell. These are specific texts naming individuals and giving other personal details about them. The intent is to “attract and bind the soul and heart.” The second is a bit more intense, calling down magical threats on a supernatural assistant to force their assistance to “inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of [person 1] with love and affection for [person 2]...burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love...forcer her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving [person 2]... [let her] surrender like a slave, giving herself and all her possessions...” amid much formulaic repetition, but always coming back to a demand for “love and affection.”

Pseudo-Lucian Forms of Love - Within an extended dialogue about various forms of love and which are preferable, one of the characters argues for love between women being equally acceptable to love between men. (The punch line is that it’s meant as a reductio ad absurdum argument against male-male love. Why, if you support that, the next thing you know you’ll claim that women can love each other!) “Let women too love each other,” he suggests. “Let them strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of lechery, those mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed, and let woman lie with woman as does a man. Let wanton Lesbianism--that word seldom heard, which I feel ashamed even to utter--freely parade itself, and let our women’s chambers emulate Philaenis, disgracing themselves with Sapphic amours.”

Firmicus Maternus Mathesis - An astrology manual that includes gender expression and sexual preference as possible consequences of one’s stars, but framed as clearly being “vices” and deviant from the desired state. Under the right stars “women will be born with masculine character, but men will become castrates or eunuchs or male prostitutes.” The implication is that gender identity is what is affected and that sexual expression may follow from that.


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