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Classical Era

This tag is used to indicate the eras dominated by Greek and Roman civilization. In regions where those cultures had no influence, consider it to indicate roughly 1000 BCE to the early centuries of the Common Era. If a more specific date in the Common Era is known, that will be used.

LHMP entry

This article covers the same material and topics as Chapter 4 in the 2021 edition of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. See my write-up of that version at the link. Although the structure of the two discussions is different, and the present article is worth reading on its own, it didn't seem profitable to write it up as a separate LHMP entry.

This article looks generally at the topic of women with “active” sexuality in a classical Roman context, as understood in the context of three grammatically-feminine nouns derived from verbs of sexual action: fellatrix, tribade, and fututrix. (Crudely translated, fellator, rubber, and fucker, but where the grammatical form of the word unambiguously indicates a female actor.) An example is given of an inscription identifying a woman as Mola foutoutris “Mola, fucker” using an agentive noun that implies the possession and use of a phallus.

This paper looks at the evolution of how the word “lesbian”, originally simply a geographic/ethnic identifier meaning “person from the island of Lesbos” came to pick up a separate meaning of “female homosexual.”

Gilhuly begins with a (very brief) discussion of the abstract uses of locational and geographic language, how geographic signifiers very often acquire secondary meanings rooted in some association with the place (e.g., “Spartan accommodations”), and how classical Greek writers were highly prone to developing these sorts of metonymic geographic shorthands.

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.

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: 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.

Macro-clitoral Motifs

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.

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.

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