In the texts discussed in this section, it is particularly important to keep in mind that these are fictional depictions, created for specific rhetorical purposes. While the women and their sexual activities in these texts need to make sense to the audience (to say nothing of needing to be imaginable by the author), these are not neutral, documentary descriptions of random real-life women. We have a complete absence of neutral documentation of real-life Roman women who engaged in sex with women. That doesn't mean that we can't envision such lives based on biased and polemical texts of this sort, but it does mean that we will be adding our own (modern and biased) layers, whether we're filtering out the misogyny baked into Roman literature or trying to imagine the interior lives of the women these authors are holding up for ridicule. In such exercises, I think it can be useful to consider other historic contexts where the "official" literature is uniformly hostile and misogynystic, but where we do have glimpses into the interior lives of women who loved women. We can't know the specifics of Roman women's lives, but we have sound basis for expecting them to be unaligned with what men said about them.
Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 3h: The Roman Period - Fictional Women
The Satyricon of Petronius includes a fleeting episode in which two women kiss and embrace each other during the “feast of Trimalchio”. Once again, a full understanding of the context of this literary passage is necessary to determine how this scene reflects Roman realities. Trimalchio’s feast is only one episode in the larger work that is the Satyricon and both it and the work as a whole require a lot of background which cannot be summarized here. But in brief, the fictional Trimalchio is a very rich freedman who is showing off his wealth and status by giving an over-the-top banquet. Boehringer notes two important themes. Everything in the Satyricon is a sort of reversal or inversion of ideals. And in particular, the banquet can be viewed as a distorted reflection of Plato’s Symposium, conveying the message that the characters are reaching cluelessly for the values and experiences of that earlier era, but failing to achieve them at every point. Within this context, the episode of the embrace between the women can be seen as motivated by / referring back to the myth of love between two-bodied creatures, but as having no other significant motivation for its specific inclusion.
The two women, Fortunata and Scintilla, are the wives of the two wealthy men present at the banquet, the host Trimalchio and his rival Habinnas. The two women initially serve as proxies for their husbands’ one-up-manship, where they show off the expensive jewelry their husbands have given them, and the husbands make a point of commenting on the cost and value of the objects. The women serve as placeholders for the necessary parts of a high-status life, but without a qualitative function. They are not described as beautiful, they have not provided sons, and their conversation makes clear that their husbands do not feel romantic love for them or treat them with the respect due to a wife.
After the display of jewelry, the two women fall to talking together, laughing and exchanging drunken kisses. They have expressed pleasure and eagerness at seeing each other and are in the middle of embracing each other when Habinnas, the husband of Scintilla, assaults Fortunata by seizing her feet and tipping her backwards over the couch so her garment hikes up above her knees. Fortunata protests, settles herself with her tunic in place again, and “takes refuge in Scintilla’s arms” hiding her embarrassment under a cloth.
Boehringer interprets this incident as a proxy for the two men’s rivalry, with Habinnas treating the women’s actions as if it were a form of adultery, for which a husband has the right to take action. But here he is at fault for a husband only has the right to take action within his own home, not by assaulting the “offender” in their home. The specific form of the assault is a type of symbolic rape (Boehringer goes into the details of the actions and language that support this). But in assaulting Fortunata, he is actually challenging Trimalchio.
The acts of affection between the two women have no social significance or meaning on their own—the characters themselves exist only as display of their husbands’ wealth. And the interruption of their affection gives social meaning to the act only by reframing it as a power struggle between the men.
[Note: Boehringer’s point is primarily that this episode cannot be taken as evidence regarding actual social attitudes toward women—including married women—engaging in sex-adjacent activities, whether at a public banquet or in any other context. However it should still be noted that the author has created a scenario in which two women, wives of indifferent husbands, indulge in erotic activity together, to all appearances as a way of satisfying their unfulfilled desires. Whatever symbolic meaning Petronius intended to give the women’s encounter, this was a scenario that he could envision and that he expected to make sense to his readers.]
As previously discussed, Martial’s epigrams should be understood as witty and satirical commentary on “character types” that illustrate some facet of Roman in/out-group psychology, and not as documentation of specific actual people. The epigram on Bassa follows the typical “set-up, punchline” format.
In the initial part, Bassa is described as a paragon of virtue—a second Lucretia! (Lucretia was a historic figure considered the epitome of female virtue and modesty.) Bassa hasn’t had a succession of husbands, there are no rumors of her having any (male) lover. In alignment with the expectations for a modest woman, she socializes only with women.
The second part reinterprets the same set of facts, beginning with an accusation of scandal. Bassa’s all-female company is no longer innocent as she is their fucker (fututor). But in despite of the use of this word that normally is defined as vaginal penetration, Bassa’s activities are elaborated on as “uniting twin cunts” with man-like lust. The epigram ends with a “Theban riddle” (making reference to the riddles of the Sphinx): adultery with no man involved.
As with many of Martial’s epigrams, the imagery is deliberately crude and shocking. But, also as usual, the point isn’t to present a neutral description of Roman experiences and attitudes, but to present an absurdity or conundrum for humorous purposes. Clearly he doesn’t mean to suggest that all women who engage in superficially modest and virtuous behavior should be suspected of secret vices. Another take-away is that the term fututor, when applied to women, can’t be assumed to indicate penetrative sex. (It implies sex, but perhaps may simply be the most “neutral” term available, unless a less normative act is specifically implied.) Another point is that—as we saw in the hypothetical legal case previously discussed—the application of the term “adultery” to sex between women was not a legal fact. Applying it here via language (adulterium), and in the Satyricon by means of the framework of action-and-reaction, shows that the authors saw a parallel but not that it had the same official status.
[Note: So in terms of envisioning Roman realities, what can this text suggest? Firstly, that Romans could imagine that women could have same-sex encounters within the context of an otherwise respectable life. Secondly, that male authors would consider such encounters to be improper and outside the norm. Thirdly, that sex between women could be imagined to intrude on male proprietary rights (adultery) at a symbolic level, even if not at a legal level. Fourthly, we have a specific sexual technique implied that adds to the repertoire that can be extracted from other texts.]
Juvenal’s satires are very far from an objective record of the society he lived in. Basically (and this is my phrasing, certainly not Boehringer’s) he was yelling at clouds and shit-posting and get-off-my-lawning and kids-these-days-ing to the utmost of his talents. Juvenal’s satires rage at all the vices and degeneracy he feels are destroying Traditional Roman Values™, including debauchery, greed, corruption, and the growing presence of foreigners. [Note: I’m quite certain that if Juvenal had been alive today in the US, he would have been a Fox News commentator.] Unlike Martial, Juvenal often does have specific people in mind as the targets of his pen, though he dodges lawsuits by using partial names. Nor do Juvenal’s satires present a consistent and coherent picture. The claims he makes in one may be completely contradicted by his assertions in another. All of this must be kept in mind when evaluating the truth value of specific claims and statements.
The second satire (after one which lays out his basic arguments) is aimed at pathici (men who take a passive role in sex with other men or have other “unmanly” habits and practices), including a passage written in the voice of a female character, Laronia. Boehringer discusses two laws relating to female and male sexual behavior that are referenced in the passage, particularly concerning stuprum, a concept relating to shameful or degrading sexual behaviors. The passage in the Laronia text referring to sex between women is framed in the negative in order to criticize men more strongly, Roman women, she claims do not lick each other (using fairly tame language to indicate oral sex), while men allow themselves to be penetrated by other men. [Note: the verb in this passage is lambere “lick” rather than the more crude lingere, which comes down to us in the compound cunnilingus. While both have similar denotations, it is the context of usage that tells us that one is more polite than the other.] Women do not claim male social prerogatives by arguing law or wrestling in the gymnasium, but men take up feminine activities such as spinning wool. [Note: it’s unclear here whether the accusation is that men are literally engaging in fiber production or whether “spinning wool” stands in metonymically for female-coded activities in general.]
Setting aside, for the moment, the judgement implied about sex between women, Boehringer points out several understandings that can be extracted from this passage. Criticism of pathici is predicated on an assumption of differentiated roles within m/m sex, and that certain roles are more shameful than others. Indeed, the man who alternates between active and passive roles appears to be more condemned than the man who prefers a passive role. But the description of f/f activity makes no distinction of roles or status. “Media does not lick Cluvia, nor Flora, Catulla.” But there is not the linguistic apparatus for distinguishing licker and lickee as separate roles to be evaluated individually, as we regularly see for sexual activity involving men. The women are not distinguished by age or status, but treated as a single undifferentiated category. From the context of the discussion, the hypothetical women can be presumed to be “respectable” married women rather than prostitutes or courtesans, as the legal context of this discussion involves forms of adultery, which would not apply to prostitutes.
Boehringer’s interpretation is that this passage is not intended specifically to provide an opinion on sex between women in the abstract, but rather to use an accepted view that f/f oral sex is strongly negatively evaluated in order to imply that the behavior of men in the same discussion is even worse than that.
The fictional Laronia’s defense of Roman women is shown to be a rhetorical tactic rather than a claim about actual practice by the appearance in Juvenal’s 6th satire of a long litany of accusations of women’s sexual debauchery. The framing story of this satire is that of a man trying to convince his friend never to marry, by listing all the ways in which women are unworthy of his love. This catalog specifically targets the hypocrisy of wives of citizens, not the behavior of more marginal women, and covers a very wide range of behaviors, not only sexual ones.
But among this catalog is one dramatized scenario in which two women, returning together from a drunken party, literally piss on the altar of Chastity. Following this, they take turns to straddle/ride (equitant) each other, “writhing together beneath the gaze of the Moon.” In context, this is clearly intended to indicate sexual behavior. Even more so than the licking passage, the language indicates the absence of role differentiation and a mutual activity. The two women are of equal status, likely of equal age being described as “milk sisters” (i.e., nursed by the same wet-nurse), and to the extent that the sexual activity is asymmetric, each takes turns at each activity. There is no implication of masculine role-playing or of penetrative activity. (While Juvenal also condemns women who engage in male-coded activities such as athletics, this is done in separate scenarios not related to f/f sex.) Much of Boehringer’s further commentary speaks to the multiple ways in which this scenario violates the expected behavior of modest citizen wives.
Overall, these fictional depictions by Petronius, Martial, and Juvenal present a relatively consistent picture. These are free women of various social ranks, the wives of citizens and freedmen. They are not described as tribades or fricatrixes (although sexual activities implied by those labels are described). There is no parallelism between the way f/f sex and m/m sex is treated. The judgement of m/m sex hinges on an assumption of asymmetry and differentiated roles, while f/f sex does not involve different judgements based on distinctive roles within the sex act. Rather, the negative judgment of f/f sex hinges on the fact that no man is involved. The category of tribas is not a parallel for the category of cinaedus, in the sense of envisioning an overarching category of “people who engage in same-sex sexual activity.” The contrasting categories applied to men who have sex with men are irrelevant to women who have sex with women because they are entirely outside the system of masculine virtue that allows some roles and disallows others. This pattern continues in the next section which looks at “scientific” discourse around sexuality.