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Classical Era

This tag is used to indicate the eras dominated by Greek and Roman civilization. In regions where those cultures had no influence, consider it to indicate roughly 1000 BCE to the early centuries of the Common Era. If a more specific date in the Common Era is known, that will be used.

LHMP entry

Greene contrasts the asymmetrical, hierarchical way that desire is structured in male-centered relationships in ancient Greek literature with the reciprocal, mutual structure seen in several of Sappho’s poems about desire between women. The strict definitions of active, dominant, older and/or male erastes and passive, subordinate, younger and/or female eromenos are pervasive in art and literature. Sappho’s work disrupts this structure not simply by positioning a woman as the active agent, but in envisioning a response from the beloved that mirrors the lover’s agency.

While the Inseparable motif sometimes employs a male character to bridge the practical logistics of forming a female couple, it is more natural for a triangle of this sort to frame the man and woman as rivals for their shared object of desire. Sappho’s fragment 31 encapsulates the envy of a woman for the man who has the attention of the woman she loves. And in contrast to the common motif of-two men competing for a woman's love, when one of the rivals is a woman there is always an awareness that the playing field is badly uneven.

The introduction begins with a contradiction that inspires the book’s title. In twenty years of correspondence between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (who were famous for their close and loving friendship), the two closed letters with phrases in which the words “passionate” or “passionately” figured prominently. And yet a comment by Sarah regarding a somewhat scandalous pamphlet described it as including “stuff not fit to be mentioned of passions between women”. Did the word “passion” have distinct and separate meanings in these two contexts?

Renaissance philosophy tackled the question of friendship: who is an appropriate friend, what behavior should a friend exhibit, what is the relationship between the love of friends and sexual desire? Given the times, the majority of texts addressing this topic were concerned with friendships between men, though a nod was often given to Sappho as a proponent of female friendships, or to the possibility of “Platonic love” between women, which is given explicit license in the Symposium as well as by Renaissance writers commenting on it, as Agnolo Firenzuola did.

Early modern Europe had quite a fondness for encyclopedic works that defined and classified the entire known world (and much that was imaginary). Theodor Zwinger (1533-1588) wrote Theatrum vitae humane (Theater of Human Life) in something of a biographical dictionary form, in groupings according to the characteristic that provided their fame. Under the section “Tribades” he notes “Here we say nothing which has not been said before, and collect only a few items.

We have not entirely managed to shed the idea that an individual’s habitual predispositions are reflected in their physical features. The Greek pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomics is one of the foundational treatises that systematized this view. References to female homoeroticism (as opposed to male references) in the context of physiognomy are rare and primarily appear in texts derived from an anonymous Latin treatise of the 4th century.

One of the premises of astrology is that it predetermines various personality traits, as well as aspects of the course of one’s life. As applied to sexual preference, astrology provides at least a vague analog to the notion of an inborn orientation toward certain types of sexual activities and partners, although the ways these activities and partners are categorized don’t necessarily align with modern categories.

Homoeroticism cannot be identified in historic contexts without letting go of modern notions of what it would look like or what other relationships it would be compatible or incompatible with. There are few explicit images of sexual activity between women in Roman art. Brooten (1996) gives two examples of female homoeroticism, only one of which is sexual: a grave relief of two freedwomen clasping hands (dextrarum iunctio) in a manner normally used to symbolize marriage, and a wall painting from Pompeii that appears to show two women engaging in oral sex.

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