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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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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