Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 2e: Classical and Hellenistic Greece – Changing Attitudes
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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.
Like many versions of the myth, only a segment of the whole story is presented: the accusation and response. We know that the audience was meant to understand the argument as humorous, because that is the genre Amphis worked in. Even though the sexual encounter itself is (probably) not depicted on stage, the entire theme of the play revolves around the image of an innocent girl willingly engaging in what she believes to be sex with a woman, and believing that this could cause pregnancy.
Although comedies of an earlier era (“Old Comedy”) were rife with sexual humor, the works of that era did not include female same-sex themes. Boehringer infers that this means Athenians of the fifth century BCE would not have considered such relationships to be funny.
But in Amphis’s play, it isn’t the sexual encounter itself that provokes humor, but Callisto’s naïveté and innocence. Callisto is not presented as deviant or unfeminine in embracing f/f sex, only as ignorant.
And yet, this work signals a shift in how f/f sex is treated in public discourse. There is no longer silence. It is a subject that can be spoken of and treated in a comic context.
This is still far from the framing of f/f sex that we see in later Roman satire. But that shift may not be purely a Greek-Roman distinction. Boehringer sees evidence of a shift to a more negative view of f/f sex in the structure of a poetic anthology compiled by the Greek poet Meleager in the first century BCE, and how it handled the inclusion of Asclepiades’ epigram on the Samian women.
The creation of poetic anthologies that collected, selected, and organized existing works – perhaps with additions by the anthologist - was a common practice at the time. The treatment of the Samian women epigram across multiple anthologies shows how understanding of its subject matter changed.
Early collections didn’t treat the poem as distinct from the other epigrams of sexual frustration that Asclepiades wrote. But Meleager, working in the early first century BCE, paid particular attention to the organization of erotic poems in his collection, creating groups and sequences on particular themes.
Boehringer sees significance in how the Samian poem is preceded by several poems in the voice of marginal women (prostitutes and entertainers) making votive offerings, and is followed by one of Meleager’s own works in which he rejects having sex with boys and expresses his desire for women. This context, then, reinforces a sexual interpretation of the relationship between the Samian women, and juxtaposes it with a rejection of same-sex relations (though perhaps an individual rejecting by the author). Female same-sex love is removed from the realm of sexual variation and placed in the realm of rejected practices.
The chapter sums up the bare-bones of the Greek data. In the Archaic period, women’s same-sex relations were not included in the category of sexual relations, although they were considered erotic. During the Classical period, women’s same-sex relations are not a topic of public discourse or representation because they are not part of the social sphere. During the Helenistic period, women’s same-sex relations begin to emerge into public discourse and are recognized as sexual. But throughout these shifts, two constants are an absence of moral condemnation and a lack of differentiation of sexual or gender roles between the two partners.