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Full citation: 

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-292-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Contents summary: 

This collection is somewhat unusual for its topic both in being interdisciplinary and in focusing exclusively on women’s relationships with other women. The introduction notes that with the exception of Brooten (1996) and the cottage industry of Sappho studies, there has been extremely little research published on female homoeroticism in antiquity, especially in contrast to the attention directed at male homoeroticism.

This field is hampered by the lack of direct, unmediated data on the lives of ordinary women. Art and literature present a carefully deliberate picture and, with very few exceptions, one that is filtered through men. Given this, women’s interactions exclusive of men are even harder to study. Describing the focus of the collection as “homosocial” presents no problems, but labeling the content as “homoerotic” as opposed to the various other possible options required working through the connotations and scholarly baggage of possibilities such as “homosexual” or “lesbian”. “Erotic” is more compatible with the clear evidence for desire, but the more ambiguous evidence for sexual activity, per se. The author notes that a strict focus on genital sexuality would erase the vast majority of evidence for homoerotic desire.

Rabinowitz spends several pages reviewing the history of the study of antiquity and the inseparability of ideology from historic interpretation. The uses to which ancient Greek history have been put by modern scholars are unarguable and varied. The desire of western scholars to claim ancient Greece as the origin and mirror of modern western society finds hurdles in the position of women in that society. The lower social position of women and their seclusion from public life were often “orientalized” as a way of displacing the contradiction onto an Other, apart from those noble paragons of freedom and democracy.

Another aspect of ideological interference in classical studies was the practice of suppressing or segregating material related to overt sexuality, such as Pompeiian pornographic wall paintings, or pictorial vases with sexual content. A clear contrast can be seen in treatments of male and female Greek homosexuality, with the men elevated to a noble ideal while women's homoerotic activities were viewed as part and parcel of an orientalized harem-like seclusion. There were regular and repeated attempts to “reclaim” the undeniable genius of Sappho from this dismissal by denying the erotic nature of her work and framing her simply as a beloved schoolmistress. This ideological history does not excuse any bias in modern scholarship, but it does place it in context.

When looking at ancient Greek and Roman sexual practices and attitudes, it is crucial to remain aware that heterosexuality shows no more continuity between the ancient and modern worlds that homosexuality does. In this context, Rabinowitz looks at modern approaches to “lesbians” in antiquity and Sappho in particular as a caution against ideologies looking to claim them for one team or another. The final part of the introduction gives a brief summary of the topics of the various papers.

Contents summary: 

Rehak works on reconstructing (or at least plausibly imagining) female-centered aspects of Cretan society based on a series of frescoes from one particular site on the island of Thera. Aegean art of this era (ca. 1700-1100 BCE) does not portray images of sexual intercourse or even displays of affection or intimacy (whether between members of the opposite or same sex). But the activities depicted for women in these paintings do indicate a homosocial environment and show rites of passage at different stages of a woman’s life, an interpretation aided by fixed artistic conventions for portraying different sexes and ages.

The series of paintings focuses around the gathering of saffron crocuses. Both male and female figures are present, but generally in sex-segregated groupings and with women portrayed as larger and more central to the important activities. The majority of the article reviews the various scenes and figures in detail. Rehak also considers medicinal uses of saffron and how they may be depicted in some of the paintings. The author seems to be on solid ground in establishing the depiction of a gender-segregated society in which women are shown in higher-status contexts. However his conclusion that in such a context, “it would be surprising indeed if these...women did not express their care and attention for each other erotically” is given little additional support other than a later association of floral landscapes with sexuality. More importantly (to me) seems the evidence that gender segregation did not automatically imply lesser status for women.

Contents summary: 

Skinner examines the relationship between female poetic inspiration and the homoerotic implications of a female poet with a female muse. Although the article opens with a consideration of modern discussions of the concept of poetic muse and the implications of gendering this imagined relationship, the heart of her paper concerns the Greek poets Sappho and Nossis and the ways they portray their relationship to inspiration in the form of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and secondarily to the nine Muses. Ancient Greek writers portrayed inspiration not as the self-conscious metaphor that the “muse” later became, but as actual gifts of ability or even more extremely, a form of possession akin to the gift of divine prophecy. The later metaphor tended to be more overtly sexual in structure, with a (male) poet begetting compositions by intellectual intercourse with a (female) muse. The ancient Greek imagery frames the poet as recipient (of skills, of a directly-transmitted work) rather than “active” (and thus male-framed) begetter.

Sappho and Nossis acknowledge the Muses as patrons of their craft in a formal manner, but depict the critical relationship with Aphrodite as being personal and sensual. Both the implications of this framing, and the context of poetic production, differed for male and female poets. Men would more typically perform in the context of the symposium and with competitive overtones. Women would be performing in a less formal context to a homosocial community/audience and their works were often celebratory of the relationships within that community.

Sappho both invites and invokes the Muses and Graces in the openings to several poems, acknowledging their gifts in somewhat formal language. Aphrodite, in contrast, is invited to be a participant in the performance community, pouring out drinks for the company and exhorting the poets to celebrate their desire and longing for female companions both present an absent. In Sappho’s only complete ode, she summons and directly addresses Aphrodite for assistance in pursuing her erotic desire (for a woman). The two are presented as engaging in the teasing banter of companions and friends, not a distant hierarchical relationship.

The poet Nossis (3rd c. BCE) overtly follows Sappho as her literary model, and like her, addresses Aphrodite in the context of poetic inspiration. Though desire (eros) is regularly given as the motive for her poems commemorating gifts dedicated to the goddess, it is desire for (and inspired by) Aphrodite herself, rather than between the community of women involved. (Nossis is creating the poems on behalf of other named dedicants.) However in the donors’ eros for Aphrodite, and in the pleasure and admiration experienced by the women (and the poet) for the female-centered gifts being dedicated, a clear context of female homoerotic sensuality is created.

Contents summary: 

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. In Fragment 1, Aphrodite, when appealed to about an indifferent beloved, promises that the one who had fled would pursue, the one who had refused gifts would give them. In Fragment 94, a tearful parting from a beloved emphasizes “the wonderful things we shared” with an account of specific activities. Sappho’s Fragment 16 references Helen of Troy as one who desired and acted on those desires, not simply as a desired beloved. Greene’s analysis is packed full of linguistic detail, both in terms of surface meanings and in how the poetics reference and evoke prior literary traditions even while subverting them. She makes a strong case for the “Sapphic lover” presenting a counter-model of a symmetric non-hierarchical relationship between lovers.

Contents summary: 

Interpreting the meaning and context of Greek pottery art is far from straightforward. The modern framing as valuable “fine art” is to a large extent a by-product of the antiquities trade and it must be remembered that these vessels were originally created as a cheap imitation of fine metal utensils and, as such, might reasonably be viewed as “pop culture” works rather than the products of an artistic elite. These views make quite a difference in interpreting the depictions of women and their interrelationships with each other. In either case, the imagery is part of a coded cultural vocabulary that mediates and interprets the everyday lives the images purport to represent.

The pottery covered in this article comes from Attica from roughly 600-400 BCE, though recovered from a broad geographic area in the Mediterranean. The shapes of the vessels may be associated with specific functions (such as drinking parties, bathing, or containers for jewelry) that have gendered contexts that affect the choice of imagery. For example, certain types associated with ritual baths, perfume, and wedding rituals would have been used exclusively by women and have women predominant in the imagery. One must beware, however, of conclusions that derive circularly from premises. This applies to visual gender signifiers in the art as well as the contexts of the vessels themselves. It is a reasonable conclusion that the production of the pottery was dominated by men, leaving the question of to what extent women’s concerns and viewpoints were reflected even in pottery intended for women’s exclusive use.

When considering depictions of eroticism and desire, one must consider how women’s erotic interactions or desire for each other would be depicted, if present. Details such as whether two figures look directly at each other have erotic implications for opposite-sex pairs, but does the same interpretation apply between women? Physical interactions between women such as touching the shoulder, an arm around the waist, or sitting in another woman’s lap strongly imply intimacy and affection, less certainly overt erotic interest. Gestures between women may parallel more explicitly erotic scenes involving male couples, as in the giving of symbolic gifts such as flowers.

The bulk of the analysis first looks at vase art that depicts the homosocial aspect of women’s lives and then compares these with images that suggest a more specifically erotic reading. Social evidence for the gender segregation of Greek society in this era is mixed and while depictions of women in the later part of this period are most commonly domestic, it is clear that women were present in the public sphere, particularly in the context of religious rituals. Artistic fashion, however, affects how women are shown, as the earlier objects more frequently depicted scenes of men visiting hetairai (courtesans), and images of Amazons and maenads -- the latter clearly not implying a corresponding change in daily society. In domestic scenes, a focus on women dressing, adorning themselves, and using mirrors need not imply that these activities were a disproportionate focus of the women’s lives, as opposed to reflecting the uses to which the pottery was put (e.g., containers for jewelry and cosmetics). One key feature is that women are often depicted in groups and in relation to each other, countering a position that depictions of women exist solely for the purpose of male gaze. These contexts include dancing, attending on a bride, mourning, textile work, drawing water, or playing music.

There is a great deal of detailed analysis of the specific objects and images, but I’ll restrict the remainder of this summary to brief descriptions of key elements of the scenes.

  • Two different images showing a pair of women listening to a female musician, where one listener is leaning on or embracing the second.
  • Many scenes depict the preparation of the bride in all-female scenes, where gifts are given, or adornments and clothing are adjusted. Touching and affectionate gestures occur in these scenes and there is often a clearly erotic framing to the figures, but undeniably in the context of an impending heterosexual relationship. This need not contradict an implication of prior eroticism between the unmarried women.
  • A mythological scene centered around Aphrodite with female companions, some in affectionate contact.
  • An entire genre of depictions of maenads (with or without the presence of Dionysos) involved in ecstatic dance and close embrace. In mythology, there was a strong suggestion that maenads’ activities included same-sex orgies.
  • A repeating image of two women sharing a single mantle is found in many contexts and sometimes occurs in implied sexual contexts (based on the other figures depicted).
  • Depictions of symposia (drinking parties) typically show men and hetairai, paralleling their descriptions in literature. However some images show all-female symposia, with women (often nude) drinking together in the absence of men. It is unclear whether these are intended to show groups of hetairai or whether “respectable” women held their own women-only symposia. A few examples show the women in physically intimate conjunction. (Note that nudity does not automatically imply a lack of respectability as depictions of ritual bathing before weddings involve nudity as well.)
  • An image in the interior of a cup showing two women in the act of disrobing, one gazing over her shoulder at the other. An erotic context is implied by paired figures on the exterior of the cup (both mixed-sex and same-sex) presenting gifts to each other or holding flowers.
  • The genre of depictions of women interacting with disembodied phalluses are difficult to interpret clearly. The phallus may represent fertility in general, or represent a heterocentric understanding of female eroticism. But scenes of naked women bathing and interacting playfully in a context that includes these disembodied phalluses suggest they may also have been physical props in erotic activities. Two examples are unmistakably homoerotic, involving one woman approaching another wearing a “strap-on”, and a sexual scene in which a double-headed dildo is present.
  • An isolated image of two facing women, holding wreaths, where one touches the other’s breast and the other touches the first’s chin (a conventional gesture of romantic affection). This is an example of an image that, if involving an opposite-sex couple, would be considered unambiguously erotic.
  • An image of two naked women, one kneeling before the other and touching her genitalia (variously interpreted as sexual activity, anointing with perfume, or various personal hygiene activities).
Contents summary: 

Although honoring the dead was a duty of Athenian citizens (i.e., men), the rituals of mourning and the work of tending to graves largely belonged to women. And an analysis of tombstones from the most important cemetery of 5-4th century Athens shows that women were more commonly featured on memorial carvings as well. Carved tomb markers frequently depict two or more figures: the deceased and persons who presumably were important in their life or who wished to be depicted as mourners. Details of the relative positions and interactions of the figures communicate information about their relationships, in addition to the information supplied by inscriptions. For example, clasped hands indicate a close family relationship such as spouse, parent, or sibling.

Within this context, we can identify tomb markers where the primary mourner of a deceased woman is another woman who does not have any indications of being an immediate family member. This is, at the very least, an indication that there were Athenian women of this era whose most important survivor was an unrelated (in the familiar sense) woman. The following is an example of this type:

Two women are depicted, standing facing each other but not clasping hands; both are named (and not related); there is an inscription, “Her companions crown this tomb of Anthemis with a wreath in their remembrance of her virtue and friendship.” (Praise of this sort for the deceased is often attributed specifically to a spouse or parents.)

Three markers share a similar layout: a woman stands on the left with her hand raised in a speaking gesture while another woman is seated to the right (by convention the seated woman is the deceased). There is no indication of a family relationship between them, or in some cases both are named and the names indicate no connection. In two other memorials with similar (non)-relatives, the two women are embracing. The most suggestive of the type, though from Thessaly rather than Athens, portrays two women facing each other with hand gestures that are associated with homosexual courtship when men are portrayed using them. The women offer each other flowers, generally accepted as a symbol of desire or good intentions in art of this era.

Whatever the exact nature of the relationships between these deceased women and their female mourners, there are indications of strong same-sex social (rather than familial) bonds that were significant enough to be memorialized.

Contents summary: 

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. When the category of female homoeroticism is defined to include behaviors and words that express deep personal attachment, including "romantic friendship," it may be portrayed in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or physical ties that don't necessarily read as overtly sexual.

Images suggestive of female homoeroticism can be decoded by comparison to the iconography of heterosexual relations, including symbols of marriage, courtship, and desire. The most direct evidence for sexual activity between women often comes from polemical condemnations, providing vocabulary such as tribas and fricatrix. But when all types of evidence--and ranges of relationships--are considered, there is a considerable body of material from across the Roman world.

Auanger presents a range of examples, covering the 2nd century BCE through the 6th century CE, that indicate intimacy between women and give hints at the possibility of a wider continuous tradition of female homoeroticism that escaped record.

Condemnation of women's "deviant" sexuality must be understood in the context of what norms were being violated. A reference to two women enjoying a dildo in the temple of Pudicitia may be condemning public sexuality or violations of sacred spaces, rather than addressing the same-sex aspect specifically. A 6th c. poem by Luxorius chastising a girl "whom enforced lust turns into a man" and who is "passive and also active" may be policing gender roles rather than sexual partners. But legal and polemical texts do not, in general, condemn expressions of affection between women, such as kissing, hugging, and intimate touching, so these may not have been viewed as sexually transgressive despite falling under the broad category of eroticism.

One difficulty in interpreting Roman evidence as "Roman" is the degree to which artistic representations were often copied from Greek originals, as well as the degree to which female homoeroticism was coded as "foreign" and especially as Greek. Quotations of Sappho's works and discussions of her life provide a significant corpus of the Roman evidence for homoeroticism but have questionable relevance for Roman women's activities (as opposed to Roman men's attitudes). Even when Roman authors condemned or undermined her desire for women, these commentaries provide an understanding of how such a desire was understood. (The article provides texts and commentary on a selection of these writings.)

Roman visual art is rarely if ever accompanied by explanatory text indicating how to understand such signifiers as touch, gaze, physical proximity, and position. Extrapolating from heteroerotic scenes can provide an approximation to understanding when we may interpret homoerotic intent. Mythologic themes involving all-female groups such as the Muses, Graces, and Maenads frequently read as homoerotic via signifiers such as nudity and caressing of the shoulders and breast. The Graces may be staged in a parallel context with erotes, strengthening the erotic interpretation. The Muses were commonly associated with Sappho, not only in the latter being named "the tenth Muse", but in being associated with Lesbos, a location with erotic associations even when not specifically homoerotic. They are frequently depicted enjoying an all-female assembly in which they gaze on each other and perform for each other. Their postures are reflected in depictions of mortal musicians with female listeners embracing each other during the performance.

Representations of female homoeroticism involving the goddess Aphrodite/Venus are notable. Women are portrayed as receiving advice and assistance from the goddess in their romantic affairs, and this interaction is often depicted visually as involving embraces and other close contact. The goddess may be understood as inflaming passion in the woman in preparation for a human lover. This is a view of homoeroticism ("preparing a woman for heterosexual love") that is often looked askance from a modern point of view but may have been part of the Roman homoerotic continuum.

The presence in art of erotes (i.e., cupid-like figures) was a regular indication of an erotic context. Therefore depictions of pairs or groups of women in an all-female context, accompanied by erotes creates a strong suggestion of homoerotic intent.

Contents summary: 

Ovid's Iphis & Ianthe (in the Metamorphoses) raises questions about Roman views of female homoerotic relationships. Iphis, born female but raised male, falls in love with Ianthe and then is transformed into a male body in order to marry her.

One view of female-female desire that emerges from (male) Roman writers (see e.g., Hallett 1989) is the concept of a "masculine" woman who desires women sexually, takes the active/agressive role in the relationship, and falls in the category tribas. Her partner, viewed as more traditionally "feminine" and passive may not be understood as belonging to a special sexual category, or may in some cases also be considered tribas. Brooten (1996) describes this image as well, but also notes some evidence for female-female marriage, attributed to Canaanites and Egyptians. Ovid's depiction of Sappho masculinizes her, due to her active expression and pursuit of desire (even when he is discussing her relationship with a man). The Roman, phallocentric, binary understanding of sexual desire could only imagine -- or rather could only define -- active desire as a masculine role, just as a "passive" man was viewed as inherently feminized.

Roman descriptions of female-female sex focused on phallic or pseudo-phallic activity (rubbing vulvas, or using a dildo). In this context, only the "active" female partner is viewed as deviant, with the nature of the object of her desire being a consequence rather than a cause of her deviance. (That is, as an "active" lover, she naturally is drawn to a "passive" partner, and therefore typically to a female beloved.)

Is Ovid's Iphis a "masculine" woman by nature, whose transformation harmonizes nature and body? Or does the story carry a sympathy for female-female desire even while treating it as impossible to realize? The text is slippery and elusive.

The Metamorphoses are concerned with hierarchies of power in both the natural and mythic worlds. Stories present and resolve challenges to "natural" authority in a way that restores and maintains order. But the presentation of these lessons often has a subtext that critiques that order, as when the gods are depicted as over-reacting to challenges.

Iphis is raised by her mother as a boy to escape her father's murderous misogyny and not due to her personal preference or desire. When Iphis is grown, the father--still in ignorance--betroths Iphis to a childhood friend, Ianthe. The two love each other deeply, but Iphis despairs, believing their love to be impossible and contrary to nature. Iphis and her mother pray to Isis for a solution and the goddess answers by giving Iphis a male body. Iphis and Ianthe then marry and presumably live happily ever after. It may or may not be relevant that Isis is an Egyptian deity – one of the regions to which woman-woman marriage is attributed.

Iphis and Ianthe are described in the language of similarity: equal in age, in beauty, in education, and in the love they feel for each other. Interestingly, their desire is not framed in active/passive terms but as equivalent. The active/passive contrast is reserved for Iphis's internal debate on whether to act on that desire.

Ianthe believes herself to be betrothed to a man and feels no conflict about it. Iphis--in denial of her actual emotions--believes it is impossible for a woman to love a woman, and therefore concludes that the only solution is for her or for Ianthe to become a man. (She expresses indifference as to which it would be, indicating that she does not understand her desire as deriving from her own identity as being masculine.) In her understanding, the marriage is impossible "as is" because marriage requires a groom--desire is not enough. There is also language indicating that what she considers "impossible" about their love is the ability for phallocentric consummation. That is, in contrast to the image of the active/aggressive pseudo-phallic tribas, Iphis is a "normal" woman (despite desiring another woman) and cannot resolve the problem simply by taking a "masculine" sexual role.

In general, Ovid metes out punishments to female sexual aggressors in the Metamorphoses. In this context, Iphis's failure/refusal to act on her desire appears to be what makes her a virtuous character and therefore deserving of a divine resolution to her dilemma. That is, by maintaining female passivity, she is rewarded with male actuality. Thus, although the story involves a cross-gender childhood and a physical sexual transformation, it does not seem to frame Iphis as having a transgender identity.

Despite the gender essentialism in the resolution, there are several aspects of the story that subvert an essentialist understanding. Iphis's father had resolved to kill any daughter due to the perceived inferiority of girls, but as Iphis grows to adulthood without manifesting any perceptible "inferiority", the validity of the father's motivation is undermined.

The story can be seen alternately as supporting or condemning female same-sex love. The author shows no overt disapproval of Iphis's feelings when, as a woman, she loves a woman. But neither is this situation allowed to stand. Same-sex love is literally erased by means of divinely-mediated sex-change. And yet, in contrast to other Roman depictions of female homoeroticism, the story provides a model of egalitarian, mutual, non-phallocentric love between women...for as long as there are two women present to love each other.

Contents summary: 

Haley looks at Lucian's Dialogues of the Courtesans, including his portrayal of women who sexually desired other women, from the context of queer theory and a consideration of male gaze versus representation. Given the more classically-oriented audience for this collection, she helpfully starts with an explanation of queer theory and the examination of sexual identity as a social and political construct. [I think this may be the first time I've encountered the use of "Pomosexual" in a non-ironic way.]

Lucian dates to the mid 2nd century CE and, in himself, represents the multiculturalism of the Roman Empire, being a Syrian who wrote primarily in Greek, taught in Greece, Italy, and Gaul, and briefly held a civil service job in Egypt. He belonged to a rhetorical movement that focused on the declamation of set-pieces and is credited with having developed the dialogue as a humorous art form. His works tended to straddle both satire and humor. Scholars are divided as to whether his use of mimesis--the imitation of conventional forms and themes--was a sign at his traditionalism (implying that their topics were unreflective of his own opinions) or was part of his satirical manipulation, used to reframe unexpected topics.

These two understandings are significant in the case of the Dialogues of the Courtesans, and particularly dialogue 5 between the courtesans Leana and Clonarium. Was female homoeroticism a "traditional" topic, being evoked here as part of a rote exercise? Or was Lucian disrupting the expectations of his audience by introducing it? Modern scholars who focus on the context of mimesis and its role in Roman pedagogy tend to discount or ignore the specific subject matter of the dialogues.

Writing in Greek, Lucian identified the women in the dialogues as "hetairai", usually translated "courtesan", but indicating a woman who was not a wife who provided intellectual as well as physical companionship (as contrasted with women who provided only sexual services). A hetaira might technically "sell" her services, but it was framed in the symbolism of courtship and gifts, rather than purchase, and she would typically have only one male client at a time, or perhaps a couple of close friends would share her company.

Dialogue 5 takes place between Clonarium, the interviewer, and Leana concerning Leana's relationship with Megilla, "the rich woman of Lesbos [who] is in love with you just like a man." It is clear that Lesbos is understood here to signify sexually transgressive women. Clonarium notes that "there are such masculine-looking women in Lesbos, and unwilling to be with men, but only with women as though they themselves were men." Leana was hired to perform music for a drinking party for Megilla and her partner Demonassa, a woman of Corinth. Corinth was also stereotyped as a home to women with adventurous sexual tastes. After the party, Leana is invited to go to bed with the two of them where they both kiss and fondle her. Megilla then informs Leana that [s]he identifies as male, claims the name Megillus, and is married to Demonassa, calling her wife. Leana works through several possible understandings of this statement.

From a modern point of view, Megillus' explanation is a rather straightforward FTM identity: "I was born a woman...but I have the mind and desires and everything else of a man." Although Leana turns coy at discussions of sexual techniques, there are hints that Megillus may use a strap-on ("I have a substitute of my own"). The framing of the encounter thus shifts from a homosocial event (two women hire a heteira to entertain them, just as two men might have done), to homoerotic (the female hosts interact sexually with the heteira), to something more complex (a male/female couple both interact sexually with a woman).

The question remains whether Lucian was accurately (if satirically) portraying a known social reality of his world (and perhaps poking fun at Clonarium for her naiveté) or doing the same but holding up Megilla/us to ridicule, or portraying an entirely fictional male fantasy about women's sexual encounters and unable to imagine them without the presence at a male-acting figure. It is clear from other Roman writers, when discussing Sappho and other figures, that there was an assumption that a male role was required for sexual activity and that a woman who desired women must actually be masculine. (And yet Demonassa is not portrayed as masculine, and if she were it would undermine the portrayal of Megillus and Demonassa as a male-female couple,) In short, Lucian's dialogue presages the entire butch/transgender interface of the modern era, with its complexities and ambiguities of identity and presentation.

Contents summary: 

In the 5th century CE, Taese and Tsansno**, two women living in a monastery in Southern Egypt were chastised for "running after" other women in "friendship and physical desire". This instance--with its unusual specificity of details--is part of a general discourse on women's homoerotic activities in Late Antique Egypt that is shaped by the (mostly) male monastic writers whose records survive. While this material dates from a fairly late (and geographically peripheral) part of the Roman Empire, enough continuity can be identified to use it as a window on broader Roman thought.

Egypt, at this period, was largely Christian, although with a myriad of sects and divisions. Literacy was in both Greek and Coptic (Egyptian) with documents in the latter (as are most of those considered in this article) presumably intended for a purely local audience. As the evidence under consideration comes largely from monastic contexts, it is necessarily filtered through the patriarchal and ascetic attitudes of the culture. Two specific sites provide the majority of the data, due in part to the large literary output of these institutions and to their specific involvement with women's monasticism. [See the genre of "transvestite saints" for issues of women in monastic communities in a broader scope during the early Christian era.] The group of Pachomian communities and the monastery founded by Shenute were established as women's communities in the 4th century, although there were female monastics earlier. Women may have constituted as much as 40% of Shenute's community and were a proportionate topic of his writings. Correspondence and writings about women monastics at this period and have an emphasis on the regulation and control of women's behavior and on the perception that the female communities were sources of trouble. The sexes were physically segregated in these communities but were under the same rule and the same (male) authority.

A letter to the Shenute women's community, addressing the handling of infractions, provides background for the types of concerns that were raised: deficiencies of fasting, prayer and meditation, "talking back" to elders, but also more concrete offenses such as theft, assault, lying, wearing luxurious clothing. In the midst of this, Taese is punished for "run[ning] after Tsansno in friendship and physical desire" while Tsansno is punished "because sometimes she ran after her neighbor in friendship and sometimes she lied about empty things that will perish, so that she forfeit her own soul" as well as vague accusations of pride and of setting herself up to teach others. The punishments all involve beatings on the soles of the feet with a stick. Taese 's punishment is 15 blows, on the low end of the scale (though others with similar punishment don't have their infractions specified) while Tsansno received 40 blows, more than any other in the list including those accused of theft, perhaps because her offenses included challenge to authority.

The vocabulary used for "physical desire" here unmistakably indicates eroticism in this context. While "friendship" is less obviously erotic, the vocabulary used occurs regularly in monastic writings for both men and women in contexts that indicate this is a "special friendship" with homoerotic connotations, of the type considered suspect within monastic communities. (Though the same word was positive in secular contexts.) It indicated the sort of relationship that, in the words of one polemic, leads one to "anxiously glance this way and that, [and] watch until you have found the opportune moment, then you give him what is (hidden) under the hem of your garment..." This text describes monastic men given to these "friendships" as if an identifiable subculture within the monastery, with characteristic habits of dress, adornment, and behavior.

The phrasing "run after [someone] with physical desire" occurs in a number of texts, indicating that it was a regular expression with understood meaning. Yet another passage in Shenute's writings condemns "a woman among us who will run after younger women, and anoint them and is filled with a passion or is [...missing...] them in a passion of desire and slothfulness and laughter and vain error..." And then goes on to condemn those who touch a fellow monastic "while they are asleep or while they are awake...that they might ascertain that they have reached adulthood" or those who "sleep two on a mat". Pachomius also saw peril in the opportunities for physical contact while sleeping or during mutual bodily care. "No one shall speak with his neighbors in the dark. You shall not sit, two together, on a mat or carpet. A man shall not grasp the hand of his friend or any other part of him, but instead, whether sitting or standing or walking, you shall leave an arm's length between you and him." Men were forbidden from removing a thorn from another's foot, or shaving each other, unless specifically ordered by a superior.

**The women's names include diacritic marks that I was unable to reproduce reliably here.