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date: 18 January 2019

Summary and Keywords

Sexual and amorous relationships between females constitute, as a heuristic category, an illuminating field of research for the construction of sexual categories in antiquity, as well as for the prevailing gender system of the time. In Greece and Rome, sexuality did not have the identity function that we attribute to it today: in these societies “before sexuality,” the category of female homosexuality, like those of heterosexuality or homosexuality in general, did not exist per se. Yet we have access to over forty documents (containing both substantial treatments and brief mentions), along with the terms hetairistria and tribas, associated with this semantic field.

In Archaic Greece, the privileged expression of erotic desire between women can be found without ambiguity in the verses of Alcman and Sappho. In this community context, the force of eros is celebrated, and the joys and pains generated by its power are sung without differentiation based on gender categories. In Classical and Hellenistic Greece, the sources become rarer: female homosexuality disappears from our evidence for the possible configurations of eros, with the notable exception of Plato’s account (Symposium, Laws). Throughout the 3rd and 2nd centuries bce, it is in the context of playful and humourous discourses that authors (Amphis, Asclepiades) allude to relationships between women. The tone changes in the Roman world, where three types of discourse develop: that of elegiac poetry (particularly Ovid) which re-employs positive Greek motifs but shows the impossibility of such relationships; that of satire (e.g. Martial, Juvenal), particularly derogatory, where the complex figure of the tribas appears alongside ridiculous and repugnant characters; and, later, that of the classifying discourses of physiognomic or astrological texts. In Greece as in Rome, the rarity of these erotic representations in images and paintings indicates that sex between women barely entered, if at all, into the erotic imaginary of the masculine elite.

In antiquity, there is no perceived equivalence between male homoerotic love and female homoerotic love, just as the image of the tribas is not identical or strictly parallel to the figure of the Greek kinaidos or the Roman mollis. While the latter two may in certain circumstances embody a deviant masculinity that defines, through opposition, the masculine ideal, the tribas does not occupy any similar position in contrast to a figure embodying positive and privileged femininity: in this respect, the ancient gender system is not symmetrical.

Keywords: sexuality, homosexuality, male homosexuality, women, love, gender, Sappho, unnatural eros, lyric, Philaenis, sunkrisis, tribas, satire, epigram, Lesbos, Athens, Sparta, Rome

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