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Covering the region equivalent to modern Italy in southern Europe, but also used for topics within the cultural scope of the Roman Empire, if a more specific region is not indicated.

LHMP entry

This paper looks at the evolution of how the word “lesbian”, originally simply a geographic/ethnic identifier meaning “person from the island of Lesbos” came to pick up a separate meaning of “female homosexual.”

Gilhuly begins with a (very brief) discussion of the abstract uses of locational and geographic language, how geographic signifiers very often acquire secondary meanings rooted in some association with the place (e.g., “Spartan accommodations”), and how classical Greek writers were highly prone to developing these sorts of metonymic geographic shorthands.

I rather like the conclusions chapter—neither a rote summary of the analysis nor an unrelated philosophical excursion. Boehringer starts by noting that there’s an inherent anachronism in defining the scope of the book in terms of modern categories. Whether you consider that scope to be “female homosexuality” or even the narrower “love and sex between women”, the definition assumes the existence of a category that the research has yet to demonstrated existed in classical Greece and Rome.

Those familiar with the corpus of classical references to sex between women may have noticed a gap in the material covered up to this point. In a chapter labeled “Epilogue: Lucian and the saturation of signs” Boehringer tackles Lucian’s Dialogue 5 from Dialogues of the Courtesans, in which the narrator describes her sexual interactions with a female** couple who present themselves as “married”.

[Note: calling these texts “scientific” is stretching things a bit, but I’ll allow that the people writing them considered them to be scientific, in a sense.] This section of the chapter covers a handful of texts that fall generally in the category of non-fiction, as understood by their authors. A secondary theme to this section is “motifs that classical Roman texts do not support,” specifically with respect to physiology and gender role topics.

Macro-clitoral Motifs

One particular woman’s name crops up in relation to several references to tribades, creating a confusing implication that a specific tribade named Philaenis was part of Roman history. In this section, Boehringer dissects out the origins, traditions, and contexts that connect the name Philaenis to sex between women (as well as other sexual contexts). This is a long, complicated discussion and I will skim over some parts.

Following Seneca’s quote of the use of “tribade,” in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, uses of the term in Latin are closely connected with astrological literature, and appear in very similar formulas (some clearly deriving from each other or from a common original), such that we can derive additional context from similar formulas that use other language, as well as context from Greek astrological literature that uses the Greek form of the word. Boehringer provides a chronology of the exact sources, with their dates and the word forms used in them.

The mention of tribades in Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae, something of a textbook for arguing legal cases, appears to be straightforward. A man comes upon his wife and another woman engaged in sex and kills them both.

While earlier references to f/f relations focused on emotions, with the start of the Common Era, Roman literature introduces different attitudes. The category of “tribade,” although derived from the Greek word “tribas” (from “tribein”, to rub), has its earliest surviving mentions in Latin texts. It was clearly in use previously as it appears in multiple texts at a similar era.


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