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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 223 – The Marriage(?) of Berenike and Mesopotamia

Sunday, February 20, 2022 - 11:06

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 223 – The Marriage(?) of Berenike and Mesopotamia - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/02/20 - listen here)

Love Between Women in Roman-era Egypt

Once you move back in time past the recent few centuries, the information about love between women becomes more fragmentary, more ambiguous, and harder to put in context. Scraps of information—much like the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry—provide meaning only when you understand the context in which they were produced, the allusions they are making, and the assumptions that their audience could be assumed to make. If all you have is the fragment of text, that context is difficult to retrieve.

That means that even when we happen on a surprisingly detailed piece of evidence—such as the novel Babyloniaka by the 2nd century Greek writer Iamblichos--we must be careful about interpreting it in the context of modern models and understandings of identity and behavior. The Babyloniaka is a long, rambling, nearly incoherent novel of love and adventure, set in a Near East that is not the historic 2nd century but that made sense to 2nd century readers. The relationship between two women named Berenike and Mesopotamia is something of a footnote within it, but that footnote has a startling depiction of love, sex, and possibly marriage between two women, one of them presented as a queen of Egypt. The Babyloniaka is clearly a work of imaginative fiction, not a description of historic events and persons, but can it tell us truths about what people of that time believed or imagined to be true? Or at least, what they imagined to be plausible?

Within the surviving writings from the classical world, there are several references that—taken together—suggest that Egypt was a place where women’s same-sex relations were considered more ordinary than in other parts of the ancient world. Or at least, that people in other cultures believed this to be the case. The material I’ll be talking about here comes from the 2nd to the 5th century of the Common Era, so not the Egypt of the pharaohs and pyramids, and not even the Egypt of the Hellenistic era, but the Egypt of the later Roman Empire and early Christian era.

I should note that the introductory discussion here is somewhat recycled from podcast episode 77, which focused on classical Rome. But this discussion of Iamblichos is much expanded.

Since Iamblichos was a Syrian Greek, we must first ask whether there is any evidence from Egypt itself for the motif of love between women. One of the classical astrologers who described planetary conjunctions that predisposed women to same-sex desire was Claudius Ptolomy of Alexandria, Egypt who lived in the 2nd century CE. Like many classical writers on astrological influences, he considered that “masculine” influences could cause a woman to behave more like a man, including desiring women. If the stars predisposed a woman to act on these desires openly, he says, sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful ‘wives’. But although Claudius Ptolomy himself was Egyptian, his opinions are similar to those of astrologers writing elsewhere in the classical world and don’t make any specific reference to practices in Egypt. So what else do we have?

His near-contemporary, another resident of Alexandria, the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, wrote condemning gender transgression in both men and women, and specifically criticised, “women [who] behave like men in that women, contrary to nature, are given in marriage and marry [other women].” Again, we have circumstantial evidence where a resident of Alexandria, presumably familiar with Egyptian cultural practices, refers to the practice of women marrying other women or at least referring to their relationship as a marriage. But once again, there isn’t necessarily a connection to it being a peculiarly Egyptian practice.

We get far more concrete evidence—though of sexual desire rather than marriage—from the genre of love magic texts. In some parts of the Roman world, we only have surviving examples when written on durable materials, such as sheets of lead. But in Egypt, where climate conditions allow papyrus to survive, we have all manner of everyday documents, including magical spells, intended either to curse someone, or bless them, or to bind them to a particular course of action. There are several such magical texts from Roman Egypt that contain spells to cause a specific woman to fall in love with--or at least to lust after--another specific woman. The texts give personal details about the target and descriptions of what the user wants to happen.

A papyrus fragment, written in Greek, from the 2nd century CE calls on the gods to “attract and bind this, now, quickly quickly. By her soul and heart attract Sarapias herself.” I’ve omitted some of the repetition in formulas identifying the participants.

An even more lengthy and repetitive spell from Egypt is found on a lead tablet from the 3rd or 4th century, again written in Greek. The gods are invoked with lengthy descriptions and names, but the core of the request is to “inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia with love and affection for Sophia...burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love...force her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving Sophia... [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.”

A tradition of sexual desire between women in Egypt is still being noted in 5th century documents from a Christian monastery that recorded a punishment for two women for "running after" other women in "friendship and physical desire". The phrasing "run after [someone] with physical desire" occurs in a number of texts, indicating that it was a regular expression with an understood meaning. Yet another passage condemns "a woman among us who will run after younger women, and anoint them and is filled with a passion or is [...the text is missing here...] them in a passion of desire and slothfulness and laughter and vain error..."

So now we have specific evidence from 2nd to 5th century Egypt that women expressing and acting on sexual desire for women was a part of the culture, described using language and terminology similar to that used for heterosexual desire. And we have references in the same era written by Egyptians that refer to marriage between women or at least using the terminology of marriage. But do we have anything that bridges the two before we move on to the Babyloniaka?

The rules and opinions about sexual behavior embedded in the Old Testament predate this period by a significant amount, but commentary that explained and applied those rules was being generated fairly continuously by Jewish scholars. A 2nd century commentary on a passage in Leviticus 18:3 that says “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt” expands on this asking and answering, “And what did they do? A man married a man and a woman a woman, and a man married a woman and her daughter, and a woman was married to two men.” The explanation talks about a variety of prohibited types of marriage that were evidently associated with Egypt, but among them are same-sex marriages including those between women.

There’s a whole lot of cultural context subsumed in the preceding evidence. What did these writers mean by “marriage?” Keep in mind that we aren’t talking about a culture where marriage could be strictly defined by bureaucratic administrative documents. Marriage was often simply a verbal contract between the two families. There were different levels of formality, sometimes depending on the social status of the participants. What exact vocabulary was used in these texts and how would that vocabulary be interpreted in other contexts? We’ll touch on that last question in the context of the Babyloniaka.

The Babyloniaka of Iamblichos

The Babyloniaka of Iamblichos first came to my attention when Bernadette Brooten mentioned it in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Her reference was brief, but intriguing: “a lost novel by Iamblichos that tells of how Berenike, daughter of the king of Egypt, loved and married a woman named Mesopotamia.” This was an intriguing lead, but a bit devoid of explanatory context. For one thing, the name “Mesopotamia” is so obviously a geographic name that I wondered if the “lost novel” might be some sort of allegory of nations rather than a representation of real women’s lives. My eventual conclusion—to get somewhat ahead of myself—was that Brooten was over-reaching in claiming that it presented irrefutable evidence for same-sex marriage in ancient Egypt, but that it came awfully close.

So how exactly was this “love and marriage” presented? Was the language unambiguous? Did it use the same vocabulary that would be used for a heterosexual couple? And if the novel had been “lost” how was it that we knew the contents at all?

Fortunately, we live in the age of online texts, and I have the advantage of friends who live and breathe classical texts as close as my twitter feed. So thanks to Maya (who tracked down a cleaned up copy of the OCR’ed English translation, and a parallel text with the original Greek and French translation), thanks to Fade for Classical Greek consultation, to Irina for general offers of assistance, and to various other virtual cheerleaders, I was able to put together more details.

Iamblichos (or in the Latinized version, Iamblichus) was a Syrian Greek writer of the 2nd century CE. His best-known work was his Babyloniaka (Babylonian History) which was an epic romance of the lovers Rhodanes and Sinonis and their hair-raising adventures to achieve their happily ever after. A 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia indicates that the original work consisted of 39 books, but today the only surviving version is a summary by an anthologist named Photius, which mentions only 17 volumes. Evidently a copy of the original survived until 1671 when it was destroyed in a fire. One could wish that someone had taken the trouble to copy it before that tragedy, but that’s true of so many works.

Photius was a 9th century Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Among his other endeavors, he was a compiler of Greek texts--not only religious and philosophical writings, but more popular works as well. He regularly offers his opinion of the moral and literary merit of the material, which raises the question as to what extent he may have edited the texts to fit his prejudices. There’s at least a hint that he may have excised many of the details about Berenike and Mesopotamia due to disapproving of their romance, but on the other hand, he omits so much of the overall story that we can’t be sure this was a pointed choice. Many other classical Greek works are known only through his summaries, so perhaps we should simply be grateful for his efforts.

The text that I’m working from is an excerpt from a 1920 English translation by J.H. Freese entitled The Library of Photius in 5 volumes, with Iamblichos appearing in volume 1. Google Books has a cleaned up (though still error-filled) scan available in e-book formats and this can be proofed against a pdf scan of an original copy at (which also has a much messier OCR text). But for my purposes, I wanted to know what words were used in the original Greek (or at least in Photius’s 9th century Greek summary of the original Greek) to discuss the “love” and “marriage” between Berenike and Mesopotamia. The Greek version I used is from a French website which provides parallel texts in Greek and French translation, taken from an early 19th century publication, and which conveniently separates the various authors Photius covers into individual pages. While I can’t tell if the Greek has been standardized in spelling and diacritics (as is likely), it presumably represents the original vocabulary accurately.

Let us pause for a moment in wonder at the fact that all these materials are available freely and easily on the internet (at least, once you know they exist)! Truly we live in an age of riches. And I’m summarizing the process in this much detail to point out that it is possible to do this kind of research without necessarily having access to university libraries or extensive funding.

I have a cleaned-up version of the full text of Freese’s English translation in the blog entry for this source, [] with Greek text for the passages about Berenike and Mesopotamia. But the story is so rambling and confusing that I’ll give a much more condensed version here with a detailed discussion of the parts that refer to the women’s relationship. It’s best if you think of this story as an ancient Greek soap opera. A really really wacky ancient Greek soap opera.

The Plot

Photius begins with his opinions on the literary and moral quality of the work. “The author makes less show of indecencies than Achilles Tatius, but he is more immoral than the Phoenician Heliodorus. Of these three writers, who have all adopted the same subject and have chosen love intrigues as the material for their stories, Heliodorus is more serious and restrained, Iamblichus less so, while Achilles Tatius pushes his obscenity to impudence. The style of Iamblichus is soft and flowing; if there is anything vigorous and sonorous in it, it is less characterized by intensity than by what may be called titillation and nervelessness. Iamblichus is so distinguished by excellence of style and arrangement and the order of the narrative that it is to be regretted that he did not devote his skill and energies to serious subjects instead of to puerile fictions.”

Even acknowledging that Photius’s summary of the plot may not be intended to display it to advantage, it does appear to be a sort of “Perils of Pauline” romantic adventure, in which the central characters are buffeted by the winds of fate and the machinations of the antagonists, tumbling from one crisis to the next.

One essential thing to note is that Berenike and Mesopotamia are minor characters in the existing narrative. Berenike, the queen of Egypt, is mentioned only in passing in a couple of places. But those mentions suggest that her story may have originally played a much larger part, most of which was omitted by Photius.

The central characters are the young married couple Rhodanes and Sinonis. They are devotedly in love. But Garmus, the king of Babylon, falls in love with Sinonis and schemes to get Rhodanes out of the way so he can work to overcome Sinonis’s rejection of his suit.

The lovers flee, are pursued, accidentally eat poisoned honey and escape capture because they are thought to be dead, are accused of murder then proven innocent. Their pursuers set fire to the house they are staying in, but they escape and pass by unrecognized. They come across an open grave intended for a girl who turns out not to be dead after all, and for unclear reasons they take a nap in the grave. Their pursuers once again happen upon them, but let them alone, thinking the lovers are dead. They are arrested by a local official who plans to turn them over to King Garmus. To escape this fate, the lovers plan to drink poison together, but the official learns of their plan and substitutes a sleeping draught then sets out to bring them to the king. But once they tell their story to the official, he relents and sets them free at a temple of Aphrodite on an island. Note that this official has his own parallel adventures in the rest of the story, but I’ve left them out to simplify things.

Now comes the introduction of the first of our female couple, though we have no hint yet of that relationship. The priestess of Aphrodite who presides over the temple had three children: two sons Tigris and Euphrates, and a beautiful daughter Mesopotamia (who evidently started out ugly but then mysteriously turned beautiful). The reader may know that Tigris and Euphrates are the names of the two major rivers of modern-day Iraq, and that the land between them is named Mesopotamia—literally “the land between the rivers.” There is no direct explanation in the summary of how these characters relate to these landscape features, so we’ll just note that they are presented as ordinary people and not as allegorical figures. Ordinary except for one small point: the brothers are identical twins and bear an uncanny resemblance to our protagonist Rhodanes, and the sister bears a similarly uncanny resemblance to our protagonist Sinonis. This sets the stage for much confusion of identity.

There is a reference to Mesopotamia being courted by three men, but they fall to quarreling over her and kill each other.

There is evidently a long digression about the history and practices of the temple, and how Tigris died from eating poisoned roses. So when Rhodanes and Sinonis show up, the priestess of Aphrodite concludes that Rhodanes must be her son brought back to life.

But the servants of King Garmus hear that the lovers are hiding out at the temple of Aphrodite. The lovers get advance notice of their approach and escape, but their pursuers misidentify Euphrates and Mesopotamia as their quarry. They arrest Euphrates, taking him for Rhodanes, and Mesopotamia escapes. For some reason, Euphrates is going along with the mistake about identities.

Meanwhile, the true Rhodanes and Sinonis get entangled with a domestic dispute, in the midst of which Rhodanes mistakenly kisses another woman, taking her for Sinonis, and Sinonis takes off in pursuit of the other woman for blood-thirsty revenge. Almost incidentally, Sinonis kills a man who is trying to sexually assault her, but this means she’s arrested for murder and imprisoned. When Rhodanes hears of her arrest, he despairs and is only barely prevented from committing suicide. This will become a theme for him.

In the mean time, Mesopotamia has been captured, believed to be Sinonis, and this news is sent to King Garmus. In celebration of his expected upcoming marriage to Sinonis, the king orders all prisoners to be freed…including the true Sinonis, awaiting trial for murder.

And now—finally—Berenike comes into the story. Sort of. The text (using Freese’s translation) maddeningly summarizes the original text thus:

The story of Berenice, daughter of the king of Egypt, of her disgraceful amours, of her intimacy with Mesopotamia, who was afterwards seized by Sacas and, as Sinonis, sent to Garmus with her brother Euphrates.

So evidently there was an entire digression here that gave us the backstory of Berenike, daughter of the king of Egypt, and her relationship with Mesopotamia, presumably during the period after Mesopotamia fled from the temple of Aphrodite. It’s worth unpacking the specific language used to describe “her disgraceful amours” and “her intimacy with Mesopotamia” because Freese’s translation condenses and obfuscates things a bit.

The Greek text refers to Berenike’s “agrion autes” and to her “ekthesmon eroton”—which Frese has rendered collectively as “disgraceful amours.” “Agrion” is from a root meaning “wild, fierce, savage, uncivilized” but used here as a noun, so perhaps meaning something like “wild/uncivilized actions”? It’s the second phrase that brings in sexual implications. In “ekthesmon eroton” the second word is easiliy reocgnizable as from the root “eros” referring to sexual desire or erotic love. The first word is derived from the root “thesmos” having to do with law, rule, or order, so with the negative prefix means “unlawful” or “unnatural,” although it isn’t the usual word used for non-normative sexual relations. The final phrase, describing her relationship with Mesopotamia, can have a range of meanings from “be acquainted with” to “have intercourse with.” Given the presence of eros in the description, I think we’re on safe ground assuming the latter.

So we’re told there was originally an entire story here about Berenike, her frenzied actions and her non-normative sexual desires, and that she was getting it on with Mesopotamia. But Photius either considers it of little relevance to the plot or possibly more likely is uncomfortable with the content and declines to go into detail. (Keep in mind that Photius was writing his summary seven centuries after Iamblichos wrote the Babyloniaka. So if he, indeed, was censoring it, we must remember that his cultural attitudes don’t reflect the attitudes in the era of the story.)

In any event, we’ll hear more about Berenike in a little bit.

Getting back to the true Rhodanes, through a complex mix-up he comes upon a grave containing a mangled body that someone else thought was Sinonis, putting her name on the grave inscription. Rhodanes—who is definitely something of an emo-boy—cuts himself and adds his own name in blood to the inscription then is about to stab himself in despair. He seems to do this sort of thing a lot. Just in time, the girl he'd kissed by mistake for Sinonis runs in and assures him that Sinonis isn’t dead at all. (Recollect that Sinonis was pursuing her in a jealous rage.)

Now Sinonis—who as you recall has been released from prison because King Garmus is celebrating his anticipated marriage—shows up still in a murderous rage, only to find her beloved Rhodanes bleeding from his self-inflicted wound and being tended to by the girl she wants to murder. When Rhodanes prevents her from attacking the girl, Sinonis takes this as confirmation of his betrayal and yells, “I invite you today to King Garmus’s wedding!” while running off, presumably intending to deliver herself to the king.

At this point, everyone in the story—or so it seems—is hauled in front of King Garmus. Euphrates and Mesopotamia explain that they are not Rhodanes and Sinonis. Garmus believes them but sends them off to be executed anyway. Euphrates is given into the hands of an executioner…who by happy chance happens to be his own father, who connives at his son’s escape.

Mesopotamia is handed over to a different executioner who is told to cut off her head so no one can ever be mistaken for Sinonis again. But the executioner is smitten with Mesopotamia’s beauty and “sends her back to Berenice, who had become queen of Egypt after her father's death, and from whom she had been taken. Berenice is again united to Mesopotamia, on whose account Garmus threatens war.”

I’m going to get back to this key passage in a moment, but let’s clean up the rest of the loose ends of the plot. King Garmus is about to have Rhodanes crucified, but at the last minute (as these things often happen), a messenger arrives, reporting that Sinonis has just married the king of Syria. Well, so much for steadfast true love! But that gives Garmus an idea for even better revenge against Rhodanes and puts him in charge of an army to go attack the king of Syria. He is expected to die in battle, but as a back-up plan, Garmus tells the army that if the king of Syria is defeated and Sinonis is recaptured, they are to mutiny against Rhodanes and kill him. But instead, when the army prevails against Syria and retrieves Sinonis, Rhodanes is made king of Babylon in place of Garmus. Presumably somewhere in there Rhodanes finally managed to explain the mix-up about the kiss to Sinonis because they get back together.

Anyway, getting back to Berenike and Mesopotamia. While Mesopotamia has been having her perilous adventures with mistaken identity, Berenike evidently popped back home to Egypt to be crowned queen after her father’s death. When the smitten executioner spares Mesopotamia, he sends her back to Berenike “from whom she had been taken.” (This wording supports the timeline that Berenike and Mesopotamia hooked up after Mesopotamia fled the island, with their interlude interrupted when the latter was seized and sent to Garmus.) That last sentence is the one that Brooten and others interpret as indicating that the two women were married. But does it?

The specific language is that Berenike marries (gamous) Mesopotamia. But some scholars note that Greek—similarly to English—is ambiguous regarding whether this means that Berenike herself enters into the marriage, or whether Berenike arranges for and presides over Mesopotamia’s marriage to someone else. Freese translates the executioner’s action as “sends her back to Berenike” but other translations render it as “takes her away with him to Berenike.” So we can’t entirely rely on an assumption that there’s no other possible marriage candidate present. On the other hand, the executioner is a eunuch (a detail not previously mentioned because I didn’t want to complicate things) and a woman marrying a eunuch would be quite as unusual as a woman marrying another woman.

Another potential ambiguity is that the word that Freese translates as “united”—gamous—does not always strictly mean “marry” (though it’s exactly the same word that Sinonis uses when she storms off saying she’s going to marry Garmus). My classical Greek consultant notes of the word that “in later Greek particularly, [it] gets an extended meaning that makes it more of a euphemism for sex, including illicit sex.” So, definitely a sexual context, but possibly less certainly a marriage than Brooten assumes?

It might be that Freese’s translation “united with” is a good rendering of that ambiguity. But on the other hand we do have the exact same word being accepted as meaning “marry” a couple pages earlier when it’s a heterosexual pair involved. Are both instances meant to be ambiguous with regard to the nature of the union? Or do we have a case of scholars placing a higher burden of proof on the same-sex couple in order to accept the sense of a formal, recognized union?

Even as a sexual euphemism, the word “gamous” clearly evokes the concept of marriage. It may be one of those cases where, if you accept the possibility of marriage between women, then you can understand it as referring to a marriage between two women, whereas if you consider marriage between woman an impossibility or absurdity, you’re left interpreting it in a purely sexual sense. Which brings us back to those other couple of references in 2nd century sources to Egyptians being reputed to engage in same-sex marriage between women.


So, all in all, is this a text that supports the idea that marriage between women was a normal, accepted event associated with Egypt in the 2nd century CE (when Iamblichos was writing)? I’d have to judge that as “not proven” but also “not disproven.” The Babyloniaka is clearly a fantastic story of improbable events, not even a pseudo-history. But conversely, a female same-sex relationship is included in the story as an unremarkable event, described with the same word as is used for heterosexual relationships. Photius, in his summary, clearly disapproves of the women's relationship but recall that he explicitly refers to Iamblichos’ text as “immoral.” So we can’t rely on Photius as reflecting the original author’s attitude. Further, when you consider how rare it is for fictional texts to introduce the idea of same-sex romance at all, then it seems meaningful that Iamblichos included this element in a context where there seems to be no direct motivation for it. (Unlike, for example, Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, where the same-sex element is the whole point of the story.)

Even the most conservative reading of this text is that the 2nd century audience for the Babyloniaka would not have considered a romantic relationship--and perhaps even marriage--between a fictional Egyptian queen and a Babylonian woman to be an event that needed special pleading. The text clearly identifies their relationship “erotic” in the sexual sense and uses the word gamous which at the very least evokes the concept (if not clearly the legal status) of marriage, in parallel with how heterosexual unions are described. It isn’t stretching matters too badly to consider this a motif that women of the 2nd century within the Greco-Roman cultural sphere could reasonably have been aware of and used as a way to imagine their own desires.

At the other extreme, the most generous reading is that marriage between women may have been an ordinary event in classical Egypt that has been largely erased from the historic record by later Christian writers and the prevailing misogyny of both pagan and Christian Roman culture. This, I think, goes beyond what this specific text can be considered to establish as solid history. But I just might incorporate it into a story some day.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • References to women’s same-sex desire in 2-5th c Egypt
  • The 2nd c Greek novel Babyloniaka and it’s possible presentation of marriage between two women.
  • The full discussion of Iamblichos’ Babyloniaka can be found in this blog entry which has links to the source materials I used.
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Babyloniaka (Iamblichos)

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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