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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #53 - Hallett 1997 “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature”

Full citation: 

Hallett, Judith P. 1997. “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature” in Roman Sexualities, ed. By Judith P. Hallett & Marilyn B. Skinner, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

This is the last of the offprints in my LHMP file folder (which only means it's time to take my bibliographic shopping list back to the library again). Hallett is one of the sources used in Brooten's Love Between Women which I'll be covering next week. The key theme here is the disconnect in the writing of male Roman intellectuals (though the writing in question ranges from serious philosophy to raunchy satire) between their tendency to "other" female homoeroticism as something done "long ago, over there, far away, to foreigners, never by nice Roman girls" and the evidence of actual contemporary Roman women enjoying homoerotic activity that slips through their writing nonetheless.

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This article looks at the disconnect between Roman literary considerations of female homosexuality and their everyday reality. The period covered is the 2nd century BCE through the 2nd century CE. Various mythic origins were attributed to homosexual desire. One example is the story of how a drunken Prometheus , when creating humans from clay, attached sexual organs to the “wrong” bodies, thus creating individuals whose internal preferences were counter to their external organs. One common theme in these literary discussions is to position homosexuality as foreign -- and especially Hellenic -- and as deriving from or belonging to an older era. These portrayals also represented female same-sex desire as being “masculine”, even to the point of involving male sexual organs (at least in symbolic form). This contrasts with the best-known Classical Greek reference to female homoeroticism: Plato’s myth of desire being based on originally dual-bodied individuals longing for their “other half” where the dual-bodied were composed of all possible combinations of male and female. The bulk of the article looks at the references to female same-sex desire in Roman literature that build up this “Hellenizing, archaizing, masculinizing” framing of the subject. With the understanding that these mentions are from male authors in a notoriously misogynistic culture, they provide a view -- though almost certainly a distorted one -- on everyday practice in that culture.

In the play Truculentus, a character puns on two similar-sounding words to suggest that a female character “fuck your mistress”, though the bit is a passing joke rather than a significant plot element. Seneca the Elder, in discussing how to speechify about unmentionable subjects, gives the example of a man who caught his wife having sex with another woman and killed them both, then needed to explain the matter when presenting his defense. Both of these examples draw from earlier Greek originals.

The normal word used by Roman writers for female homosexuals is tribas (meaning “one who rubs”), a Greek word and retained in its Greek form. But despite the root meaning of the word, Roman use typically implied masculine-framed activities such as penetration. The author notes that two of the three authors she cites who comment directly on contemporary Roman behavior do not use tribas.

Ovid also draws on earlier Greek material for his Metamorphoeses in which the gender-disguised Iphis is in love with Ianthe and laments her desire as impossible and unnatural (until given a divine sex-change). Ovid has several passing references to Sappho and her love for women, but frames that love as shameful.

Seneca the Younger is one of the few Roman writers who comments on contemporary women who “rival men in their lusts” though the implication that it is lust for women is fuzzy. And in a longer passage, he similarly focuses on contemporary women taking on masculine habits and vices (such that they have “lost the privileges of their sex as a result of their vices”). The author notes that this “would seem to include same-sex love” but I’m not sure I’d take the allusions as conclusive.

Martial, famous as a writer of satiric epigrams, has three that address women identified as tribades. Two are addressed to a woman with the Greek name of Philaenis who participates in a great many masculine athletic activities and is rudely accused of being a sexual aggressor to both boys and girls. Martial says she correctly calls as “girlfriend (amica) the woman she fucks" and that she performs oral sex on women. Martial’s third example is similarly masculinized in his description of her sexual activity with women (even using a grammatically masculine noun for “fucker”).

Juvenal’s satires include one in the voice of a woman named Laronia who alludes to women performing mutual oral sex, but in the context of claiming that Roman women don’t do that.

Overall, it is questionable whether these examples accurately represent Roman women’s lives, but it can be assumed that they represent at least some men’s attitudes.

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