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Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords added.

Updated on 28 February 2020. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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date: 05 April 2020


Gender, the social construction of sexual difference, was central to how the Greeks and Romans understood themselves and explained their world. The Greeks inscribed a principle of gender opposition within their own language through the use of the particles μέν‎ and δέ‎, while the Romans linked grammatical gender to biological sex, thereby reinforcing a binary, heterosexual viewpoint. Classical texts and visual media, almost exclusively created by men, similarly articulate gender norms based on biological sex, representing them as critical to the construction and maintenance of social and political hierarchies. At the same time, they explore the rupture of these categories through gender-fluid figures that challenge the boundaries of anatomical sex and social categories, like the gynaecocratic warrior women, the Amazons; or the Galli, the castrated male followers of the goddess Cybele; and the ambiguously sexed hermaphrodites. The blind seer Teiresias transforms from a man into a woman and back again, experiencing two sexualities in the process (Ov. Met. 3.314). The woman Caenis requests to be turned into a man after her brutal rape by the god Apollo, so that she might never be sexually violated again (Ov. Met. 12.146). These real and mythical figures challenge in surprising ways the very binaries of sex and gender that underpinned ancient Greek and Roman cultures.

The study of gender in classical antiquity encompasses scholarship on women, masculinity, feminism, and sexuality. It is not an object of study in itself but rather a constitutive element of these areas. Scholars of women in antiquity tend to focus on women’s legal and social status and how these are represented in the literary and visual record. Those studying sexuality, which has generated an immense amount of research in recent years, typically examine homosexuality, prostitution, the relation of sexual behavior to politics, and the body. Scholars interested in gender consider how texts and artifacts are organized around sexual difference and the implications of these social and imaginary constructions. Areas within classical scholarship most concerned with the interpretation of gender include literary genres in which female characters and family issues predominate, such as Homeric epic, Athenian tragedy, and Latin love elegy, ancient medical writings from Hippocrates to Galen, and oratory and legal texts. Artistic representations such as Attic pottery and Roman wall painting offer another rich source of evidence for ancient conceptions of gender. Although the majority of work on gender has focused primarily on female representations, a growing body of scholarship is concerned with the construction of masculinity in both Greece and Rome.

Important influences for the development of the field of ancient gender studies are feminist theory (see feminism and ancient literature), gender theory such as that of Judith Butler, gay and lesbian studies, queer theory, structuralism and cultural anthropology, and Foucault’s History of Sexuality. The nascent field of transgender studies within Classics further promises to offer new insights into how ancient sources communicate ideas about gender and sexuality. The study of gender in the ancient Mediterranean world continues to be of critical relevance today because so many modern ideas about gender, sex, and identity have their origins in classical antiquity. Moreover, the popularity of reception studies in recent years has expanded the purview of ancient gender studies by emphasizing the critical role played by women in modern receptions of classical texts.

Primary Texts

Aeschines, Against Timarchus

Aristophanes, Lysistrata


Cicero, Pro Caelio

[Demosthenes], Against Neaera

Euripides, Hippolytus

Hippocrates, Diseases of Women, On Virgins

Homer, Odyssey

Juvenal, Satire 6

Plautus, Casina

Ovid, Art of Love



Soranus, Gynecology

Sulpicia = Tibullus 3.13–17


Vergil, Aeneid


Corbeill, Anthony. Sexing the World: Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex in Ancient Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Dillon, Sheila, and Sharon James, eds. A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2012.Find this resource:

Doherty, Lillian. Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth. Bristol, UK: Bristol Classical Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Flemming, Rebecca. Medicine and the Making of Roman Women: Gender, Nature, and Authority from Celsus to Galen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Foxhall, Lin. Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Foxhall, Lin, and John Salmon. Thinking Men: Masculinity and its Self-Representation in the Classical Tradition. Nottingham, UK: Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancient Society, 1998.Find this resource:

Golden, Mark, and Peter Toohey, eds. Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Holmes, Brook. Gender: Antiquity and its Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

King, Helen. Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London: Routledge, 1998.Find this resource:

Lateiner, Donald, and Barbara Gold. Roman Literature, Gender, and Reception: Domina Illustris. New York: Routledge, 2013.Find this resource:

Leitao, David. The Pregnant Male as Myth and Metaphor in Classical Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Masterson, Mark, Nancy Rabinowitz, and John Robson. Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Classical World. London: Routledge, 2014.Find this resource:

McClure, Laura, ed. Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.Find this resource:

Roisman, Joseph. The Rhetoric of Manhood: Masculinity in the Attic Orators. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Williams, Craig. Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Manhood in Classical Antiquity. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Zeitlin, Froma. Playing the Other: Gender and Classical Greek Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.Find this resource:

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