Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 3a: The Roman Period - Sappho in the Heroides
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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”.
Although there were parallels, there were also some significant distinctions between Greek and Roman sexual attitudes. For example, the age-difference relationships that Greek society licensed between free-born males, were viewed differently in Rome, where it was considered shameful for a future male citizen to be a sexual object. But although erotic attraction to adolescent boys was also a theme in Roman society, the only approved form was with non-citizen boys. At the same time, Romans idealized the Greek form of pederasty despite its contradiction with Roman mores.
For both men and women of the Citizen class, the driving factor in sexual ethics was the maintenance of pudicitia (roughly: modesty), which meant different things for men and women. The opposite of pudicitia was stuprum (roughly: shame).
For men, this meant not only limitations on what sexual roles were permitted, but a whole range of actions and restrictions that defined “manliness”. Engaging in sex with men was not stuprum as long as one didn’t engage in forbidden modalities and roles. Whereas relations with women might result in stuprum if certain boundaries were crossed.
For women, pudicitia meant restricting all sexual activities to permitted contexts and partners (specifically: one’s husband), but also restricted the possibilities for approved marriage partners. One can’t predict what Roman attitudes toward f/f sex would be by focusing on the sex of the partners, but some clues can be found by considering the structure of social categories and identifying the limited set of contexts in which the sex of both partners is relevant to how the act is classified. Just as there is no clear dividing line between licit and illicit sex for men based solely on the sex of the partner, one cannot assume that there was any sexual category for women defined solely by involving a female partner.
The earliest Roman sources—from the third century to late first century BCE—make no reference to sexual or erotic relations between women. The earliest such references that do appear (around the beginning of the first century CE) include the works of Ovid, as well as a reference in Horace.
The next section examines the Sappho poem in the Heroides, a series of works in which Ovid gives voice to the romantic complaints of a variety of women from history and legend. Boehringer’s approach here is to examine how Roman writers dealt with the image of Sappho as a lover of women, to map out a tradition of how Sappho's relationships were treated, and to see what that can tell us about Roman attitudes within their own culture.
The popular image of Sappho in Greek sources had shifted from an esteemed poet in the Classical era to the subject of comedies in the fifth and fourth century BCE, when she was depicted as having many male lovers. A later biography of the second century CE draws on this comic material, including a reference to her being a lover of women, but this characterization may well be a later addition. Positive references to Sappho’s poetry become common again in the Helenistic . But there is still no connection made to sex between women.
Sappho’s poetic works were well-known in Rome. She is referenced by writers, her works are imitated and adapted, and are recognized as erotic. When there is mention of the contents of her work by Horace, he notes that she “complained about the girls of her land” in her erotic songs, but the reference is neutral and not judgemental.
But Ovid’s Heroides moves Sappho from being a vaguely sketched historic figure to being a fully mythologized one, bringing in the Phaon myth and the motif of her suicidal leap.
Boehringer reviews the literary context and genre of the Heroides and compares the Sappho poem with the other items in the work. Ovid shows a personal identification with Sappho as the supreme poet of love, and plays with verse forms and imagery drawn both from Sappho’s own work and later legendary motifs that adhered to her, as he builds up her fictitious autobiography in the poem. He does not retain the comedic image of her as promiscuous with men, but establishes Phaon as her one male love. But he does extensively catalog the women that she loved, in the context of leaving those loves behind. By specifically comparing those relations to the love she now feels for Phaon, it leaves no doubt that her relations with women were erotic. (Keep in mind, this is depicting Ovid’s understanding or characterization of Sappho’s life.)
Boehringer challenges other interpretations of the work that see Sappho as being “masculinized” in the Heroides, and thus connected with the Roman category of tribas (on which more later). Rather, Boehringer sees Ovid’s Sappho as embodying an ideal of reciprocal love, which only appears “masculine” when set against Roman expectations of female passivity and of erotic relations as being inherently unequal.
Similarly, Boehringer challenges interpretations of the references in the poem to Sappho’s female relationships causing “reproach” as indicating condemnation of f/f sex specifically, pointing out that the context emphasizes how numerous and non-specific those relations were, suggesting that it is this element, and not the sex of her lovers, that is the basis for reproach.
Ovid’s Sappho is an inherently worthy and admirable (if tragic) figure. He uses her as an argument for how love poetry should be written. Her love for women is described in the neutral language of eroticism—the same used for male objects. Those loves were, at worst, unimportant, but not disparaged. Thus, although Sappho was not a contemporary Roman figure, her treatment by Ovid suggests that f/f love, per se, was not viewed as an act of stuprum.