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Among Women

Among Women
From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World

This book explores a wide variety of textual and archaeological evidence for women's homosocial and homoerotic relationships from prehistoric Greece to fifth-century CE Egypt.

February 2002
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407 pages | 6 x 9 | 52 b&w photos, 16 line drawings |

Women's and men's worlds were largely separate in ancient Mediterranean societies, and, in consequence, many women's deepest personal relationships were with other women. Yet relatively little scholarly or popular attention has focused on women's relationships in antiquity, in contrast to recent interest in the relationships between men in ancient Greece and Rome. The essays in this book seek to close this gap by exploring a wide variety of textual and archaeological evidence for women's homosocial and homoerotic relationships from prehistoric Greece to fifth-century CE Egypt.

Drawing on developments in feminist theory, gay and lesbian studies, and queer theory, as well as traditional textual and art historical methods, the contributors to this volume examine representations of women's lives with other women, their friendships, and sexual subjectivity. They present new interpretations of the evidence offered by the literary works of Sappho, Ovid, and Lucian; Bronze Age frescoes and Greek vase painting, funerary reliefs, and other artistic representations; and Egyptian legal documents.

  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction (Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz)
  • 2. Imag(in)ing a Women's World in Bronze Age Greece: The Frescoes from Xeste 3 at Akrotiri, Thera (Paul Rehak)
  • 3. Aphrodite Garlanded: Erôs and Poetic Creativity in Sappho and Nossis (Marilyn B. Skinner)
  • 4. Subjects, Objects, and Erotic Symmetry in Sappho's Fragments (Ellen Greene)
  • 5. Excavating Female Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting (Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz)
  • 6. Women in Relief: "Double Consciousness" in Classical Attic Tombstones (John G. Younger)
  • 7. Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence (Lisa Auanger)
  • 8. Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe: When Girls Won't Be Girls (Diane T. Pintabone)
  • 9. Lucian's "Leaena and Clonarium": Voyeurism or a Challenge to Assumptions? (Shelley P. Haley)
  • 10. "Friendship and Physical Desire": The Discourse of Female Homoeroticism in Fifth-Century CE Egypt (Terry G. Wilfong)
  • Works Cited
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz is Margaret Bundy Scott Professor of Comparative Literature at Hamilton College, where she also coordinates the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture. Lisa Auanger is an editor of the Bibliography of the History of Art at the Getty Research Institute.


This volume is unusual in the field of classics in that it bridges literary and archaeological evidence and defines antiquity expansively (Preclassical Greece to fifth-century CE Egypt), whereas most similar anthologies or books have been either literary/historical or art historical/archaeological and have tended to define the field more narrowly. But most importantly, it focuses exclusively on women's relationships with other women. The essays published here present new interpretations and new evidence about the homosocial and homoerotic relationships between women in the ancient world.


Over the last twenty-five years there has been an enormous amount of research undertaken and published on women in antiquity, but aside from recent work on Sappho and Bernadette Brooten's groundbreaking book, relatively little has addressed women as sexual subjects or addressed their possible homoeroticism. On the other hand, while there has been an explosion of interest in sexuality in antiquity over the last ten to fifteen years, following Michel Foucault, that attention has mostly been devoted to men. In this volume, we bring together both the study of women and the study of sexuality, broadly construed.


Developments in feminist theory, gay and lesbian studies, and queer theory have made this book possible by shaping questions and suggesting directions in which one can look for answers; with this collection, we hope to make a contribution to those discourses by studying the ancient world. More pragmatically, such studies have created a climate of interest and expanded the possibilities for publication and readership. Although the expansion in sexuality studies is sometimes called "fashionable" or a "growth industry" even by its friends, implying it is merely a fad (a terrible insult in classics), it is also still treated to extremely homophobic responses that expose the politicized nature of the current academy and the importance of continuing to work on same-sex desire.


Given the stature of Sappho (a seventh-century BCE Greek poet from the island of Lesbos), whose name has become synonymous with women's love for women, classical studies would seem to be a privileged site for the study of female homoeroticism; yet examining female relationships and homoeroticism in antiquity is a daunting task. In general, classicists seeking information about social life have much less data at their disposal and much less unambiguous data than scholars studying later periods; the ravages of time and the cultural practices of antiquity conspire against the project. For instance, there are no diaries, few textual records documenting private life, and no first-person accounts of the everyday life of ordinary people. What we have are images and texts, crafted and written by artists and authors for their own purposes. In brief, we have no direct access to "women's relations to women"—no actual voices, no recordings—only representations. Moreover, ancient culture was male dominated, and except for the fragments of Sappho and some few later women poets, the material remaining to us was produced by men. Thus they are more remote still from women's actual experience. Our sources are further distorted because they are often embedded in discourses of invective, satire, and insult. Thus, there are many layers between us in the present and women in the past.


Female relations not centered on men are even harder to document, since in ancient Greece and Rome, the culture of male sexuality was placed in high relief, while female sexuality was repressed or pressed into the service of masculinity. Moreover, until quite recently, discussions about women in antiquity focused on their social status, which was determined by their ties to men (father, husband); that focus led scholars to overlook women's relationships to other women. It becomes still more difficult to discuss sexuality since the dominant ideology, from antiquity to the recent past, required married or marriageable ruling-class women to be chaste, and as a result, their erotic lives were hidden. Even Sappho's writing was not sufficiently "explicit" to escape generations of misreading.


What's in a Name?


But what do we mean by explicit? Some definitions are in order. Writing this introduction has been like walking through a minefield because every word that comes to mind (e.g., sexual) has been the subject of academic scrutiny and, in some cases, is even at the heart of critical debates; thus, any word can detonate in your face. In our title, we use the term "homosocial" to refer to the various social relationships between women and to underline the idea that ancient societies were to a great extent sex-segregated and that women were therefore brought together with other women on many occasions and in many settings.


"Homosocial" was a relatively easy choice. Less simple was the choice of "homoerotic" over, say, "homosexual" or "lesbian." Why? First, the word homosexual (as a noun) continues to connote gay men and also seems to accept in advance a concept of transhistorical homosexuality that is highly contested today. At least for the time being, "homoerotic" does not have an association with a congealed identity, although it may be colonized for that purpose in the future. Second, while "lesbian" obviously avoids the problem of masculinity, it seems to us to apply more appropriately to a modern sexual identity; thus, for instance, Brooten generally adopts the term homoerotic, even though she argues strongly for the possibility of a lesbian history, perhaps because of these distinctions. Third, there are advantages to pairing "homo" (from the Greek for the "same") with "erotic" rather than "sexual." Scholars following Foucault and other constructionists in the study of the history of sexuality have destabilized the notion of an unchanging biological determination of the sexual, pointing out that we do not even know for sure what would have counted as sex in the Mediterranean region in antiquity and that we most assuredly cannot assume it is the same as what counts as sexual in western Europe or the United States today. There is debate about whether the realm of things "sexual" constituted a meaningful category in antiquity, and as to whether sexual object choice (as in homo-/hetero) was a significant axis of experience within that problematicized "realm." Despite the debate, however, the words sex and sexuality still carry the baggage of phallocentric definitions, in which "having sex" often means (vaginal) penetration; at the least, the term seems to refer to physical expressions of desire and is not consistent with much of the evidence from antiquity about women's relations to women.


"Erotic" has a broader ambit because it derives from Eros, cosmogonic force and child of Aphrodite; in Greek, eros connotes sexual love as distinct from philia, or family love, but its focus is on the desire. Thus, in discussions of representations of sexual material, erotica have tended to be distinguished from pornography, which is taken to seek to arouse sexual feelings and to lead to sexual acts. Homoerotic, by this genealogy, suggests the possibility of desire without consummation, turns our gaze away from genital sexuality, and inscribes a more expansive field of relationships than does "homosexual." As a result of this etymology, "homoerotic" better tallies with the nature of our evidence about women's lives in antiquity.


The material presented in this volume falls along a spectrum from the implicit (Rehak, Rabinowitz, Younger, Auanger) to the more explicit (Greene, Skinner, Pintabone, Haley, Wilfong). To interpret this evidence through an exclusive emphasis on the overtly sexual would be a mistake, for it would ignore many other dimensions especially important in the lives of ancient women. Moreover, such an emphasis depends on a paradigm of modern practices that would not necessarily have been available to women in antiquity; by looking for evidence of physical genital consummation, we would moreover be maintaining a very high standard for what counts as "lesbian" and almost guaranteeing the erasure of women's desire from all but a very few places. The question of "how can you be sure" about lesbians seems simultaneously homophobic (in its requirement of proof) and masculinist (what constitutes proof is a sexual act modeled on penetrative intercourse), when in heterosexual contexts, the assumption of sexual significance often requires little more than a glance.


The word "women" is hardly unproblematic either, though it may seem to be less politically charged. Given differences among women of sexual orientation, race, and class, the word does not always have the same referrent in the present, and ancient peoples not only had different words but used the words they did have for female human being in different ways. Indeed, the ancient conception of "women" can be viewed as being constituted in part by the very artifacts and texts that we are studying. As the texts by Ovid and Lucian confirm, the category was not stable and fixed (see Pintabone's and Haley's essays in this volume). To what extent were females who were attracted to other women imagined as men in antiquity? If they were, were female homoerotic relationships analogous to heterosexual relationships? Or to male homoerotic ties? To neither? Or to both?


Finally, we do not mean the small words, the prepositions, to delineate a straight line, a progression, much less a teleology, "from" one "to" the other, but rather we use them to delineate a range of women's relationships. They define a plane, not a ray. By asserting the linkage of social and erotic, we announce our intention to look at the spectrum of the relationships between women, asking if they were erotic as well as social. Our title underlines that link, which not only makes the most of the evidence we have but also enriches our analyses by putting a variety of women's relationships in context with one another instead of extracting one aspect (the physically sexual) for consideration. Indeed, the sexual desire implied by the erotic may be more productively associated with other forms of pleasure or with other forms of relationship, as it is in this volume, rather than set apart.


Ideological Scholarship: Flashback


These problems of the paucity of evidence and the attendant ambiguities can profitably encourage us to reflect on how we construct a "world" in the past. All scholarship and interpretation may be said to be ideological in that it derives, consciously or unconsciously, from the scholar's positions and preoccupations, but the significance of ideology becomes more apparent when the evidence is fragmentary, for in such cases we must "read in" to create a whole from the remains. This ideological dimension of (classical) scholarship is not new; what is new is that some of us now acknowledge it. Since earlier generations of scholars were not self-conscious about their ideological investment in their research, their biases went undetected. They were there nonetheless. However, as Marilyn Katz writes in the conclusion to her essay on "the history of the history of women," we will move ahead not by "dismissing as outdated what has gone before, but by exposing the ideological foundations of a hegemonic discourse that has dominated the discussion of ancient women, and that continues to make its powerful influence felt in the discussion of women generally as part of civil society at the present moment in history." To some extent, the earlier generations still set the terms of current discussions. This next section of the introduction will show that ideology in the past worked in ways relevant to the study we are embarked on in the present.


In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, western Europeans studied antiquity, first Rome and then increasingly Greece, to affirm their own notions of racialized nation, class, and gender and indeed as a way of writing about themselves. In Britain, the study of the classics served to define the colonial ruling class; as a result, colonial rule and classical education went hand in hand. Some of the same men were key figures in both arenas. To take one example, William Gladstone, British prime minister and an expert on colonial policy, devoted himself to promoting the study of Homer late in his career because of the importance of "the Greek mind... in which was shaped and tempered the original mould of the modern European civilization."


These men did not simply discover a preexisting Greece, however: they invented it to meet their needs. The European idea of "Greece" was mapped along the intersecting lines of color/whiteness, east/west and femininity/ masculinity, as well as ancient/modern. When ancient Greece supplanted Rome as the model for the west, standing as the idealized origin of western culture and manliness, it was largely on the basis of its supposed rationality and the much-vaunted simplicity of the sculpture being rediscovered at the time. That simplicity was associated with the statues' putative whiteness; although they were originally painted, they had lost their color through the action of time. Eighteenth-century writers denied that the statues had been painted in classical antiquity: "We cannot believe that the architects of the best days of Greece would so carefully select the purest materials in the prospect of their concealment by a mask of tawdry colour." Explorers and members of the Dilletanti Society, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett decided that they must have been painted after the Classical period. The statues had to be white: this idea was one way in which scholars constructed the Greeks as white and is evidence of the investment that they had in the view of Greece as white.


Greece was not simply "western" either. At the time that ancient Greece was being rediscovered, modern Greece had been conquered by the Ottoman empire, and the Turks were not considered white or western. In part, Europeans adopted the view of ancient Greek men, who contrasted themselves to women and to the "barbarians" of the east (viewed as slavish and effeminate), but in modern times, "the barbarian" had won. The Romantics were simultaneously Hellenes (defined as lovers of ancient Greece) and Philhellenes (literally, lovers of Greece but taken to mean defenders of modern Greece); they involved themselves not only in the reclamation of Greek art but also in the struggle for Greek independence in 1821. Contradictions ensued: contemporary Greece was viewed as wild terrain, though ancient Greece was taken to be civilization itself. Among themselves, Greek freedom fighters acknowledged that Greece had submitted to multiple influences, including that of Turkish culture, but when appealing to the west, they represented Greek culture as untouched and the direct heir to antiquity, utilizing what Michael Herzfeld terms the "Hellenic" discourse.


The social position of actual Greek women (both modern and ancient) carried meaning in this matrix of barbarian/civilized, east/west. Nationalists using the Hellenic mode claimed on the basis of the similarity of women's roles in the past and present, thereby clothing the emerging nation state in the glamour of ancient Greece. That very persistence of the past, however, risked making Greece seem less modern, and so the nationalists still had to be careful to distinguish modern Greek women from their Turkish sisters, who were even more anchored in tradition. Herzfeld points out the dilemma: if for the Greek folklorist the treatment of women provided a continuity with the ancient world, "in a world in which Greece claims 'European' status, the nation's women must be correspondingly well educated."


A palpable discourse of masculinity underlay the idealization of ancient Greece: the men of the past were a model for modern men. As a result, ancient women—who were not only a link to modern Greek women and thus possibly to the east—were a troubling node in British men's identification with Greece as western. In the early part of the nineteenth century, critical orthodoxy held that Athenian women were kept as a lower order of beings than men; they were little better than slaves, ill-educated and confined to the women's quarters; marriage was a matter of procreation, and their husbands had their meaningful friendships with other men and sex with hetairai (high-class prostitutes, typically assumed to be foreign born). Since Greece was taken as the point of origin for western culture, this view of women's lives presented a problem for male scholars. Some felt they had to face "the woman question," as we can see in this passage from Gladstone: "No view of a peculiar civilization can on its ethical side be satisfactory, unless it include a distinct consideration of the place held in it by women." I would argue that Gladstone and others strategically deployed the term "oriental" to displace the objectionable behavior from the west and minimize the possibility that it would appear familiar to bourgeois classicists. In this discourse, the women's quarters were identified with "the Oriental harem" and women's condition with "Oriental seclusion." The phrase "the oriental seclusion of women" was so common in classics that A. E. Haigh could use it offhandedly in his discussion of theatrical conventions ("Undoubtedly Athenian women were kept in a state of almost Oriental seclusion.").


Victorians also responded to the orthodox view (indeed, to some extent we are stil1 trying to deal with it) by emphasizing other aspects of Greek culture. In Studies on Homer, written in part to encourage more instruction on Homer at Oxford, Gladstone goes on to argue that the place of women in Homeric times was elevated "both absolutely and in comparison with what it became in the historic ages of Greece and Rome." Gilbert Murray cites those who called the Greeks "trampler[s] on women" but adds this disclaimer "But it is not those people that constitute Greece.... It is not anything fixed and stationary that constitutes Greece: what constitutes Greece is the movement which leads from all these to the Stoic or fifth-century 'sophist' who condemns and denies slavery, who has abolished al1 cruel superstitions and preaches some religion based on philosophy and humanity, who claims for women the same spiritual rights as for men."


Yet another strategy was to adopt a strong defense of the Greeks, discrediting the severity of the orthodox view. As the discussion of women expanded in the twentieth century, some scholars defended the ancient Greek treatment of women by comparing it to the treatment of women in modern Europe. A. W. Gomme wrote in 1925 that "I consider it very doubtful if Greek theory and practice differed fundamentally from the average, say, prevailing in mediaeval and modern Europe." H. D. F. Kitto shared this opinion, comparing Greek men to modern western men; he goes even further than Gomme and refers specifically to his home city of Manchester. By saying that the Greeks were like "us," these scholars were saying that nothing was wrong with the Greeks. By defending the Greeks, male classicists of course also defended bourgeois British treatment of women and the status quo (as I will show below, this is a strand in discussions of women in antiquity practically up to the present day).


Discourses of sex and sexuality were part and parcel ofthese constructions of antiquity and were similarly laced with ideology. Just as the newly discovered statues were considered to be white, they were also supposedly sexless. Catherine Johns observes an "unfortunate coincidence" between early collecting and the "rapid development of a refinement in speech and manners which eventually became sheer prudery, and even led on occasion to the most regrettable and unscholarly hypocrisy." Jean Marcadé points out that the prudery was located in assumptions about Hellenism ("the 'noble simplicity' and 'calm grandeur' spoken of by Winckelmann"). The explicitly sexual wall paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum were published separately from the rest of the discovery, while sexual vases were hidden away in private collections.


The new nineteenth-century discourse of homosexuality was enhanced by a review of the curriculum being undertaken at Oxford in this period. By instituting the study of Plato, the so-called Greats course in classics became a legitimate avenue for the development of intense ties between men and for the strengthening of the nation. Oxford's curriculum explored and redefined Socrates' relationship to men; in the ascetic readings (e.g., Benjamin Jowett's) and the erotic ones (e.g., John Symonds' and Walter Pater's), the past was seen as analogous to the present, whether the relationships were those between students and teachers or between friends. In other words, nineteenth-century scholars such as Symonds and Pater looked to Plato for justification of their own lives and loves.


The overlap between classical studies and sexuality studies was still closer, however, since some of those same men trained in classics were also involved in the movement to legitimate male-male sexual relationships, and they used Greek paederastia and the high status of Greece as the origin of culture to counter the assertion that male homosexuality, as it was coming to be called, was somehow "primitive." Edward Carpenter applauds the Greek ideal of "the trained male, the athlete, the man temperate and restrained, even, chaste, for the sake of bettering his powers. It was round this conception that the Greeks kindled their finer emotions." He goes on to say: "And so of their love: a base and licentious indulgence was not in line with it." He distinguishes between procreative, physical love and the philosophical creations of "homogenic love." The title and introduction to John Symonds' A Problem in Greek Ethics, Being an Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion Addressed Especially to Medical Psychologists and Jurists are quite explicit. He addresses himself to the medical psychologists who would pathologize homosexuality and to the jurists who would criminalize it, and he uses ancient Greece for support:


Here alone in history have we the example of a great and highly-developed race not only tolerating homosexual passions, but deeming them of spiritual value, and attempting to utilise them for the benefit of society.... What the Greeks called paiderastia, or boy-love, was a phenomenon of one of the most brilliant periods of human culture, in one of the most highly organized and nobly active nations.


The reference to the Greeks granted legitimacy where it was needed. Symonds refers to homoerotic Greek legends and sums up their meaning by saying that "the chivalry of Hellas found its motive force in friendship rather than in the love of women.... The fruit which friendship bore among the Greeks was courage in the face of danger, indifference to life when honor was at stake, patriotic ardor, the love of liberty, and lion-hearted rivalry in battle." For both Carpenter and Symonds, the ancient Greek love of men for men was the basis of desire for liberty and was not effeminate but was consonant wth military vigor.


Several elements are intertwined in this complicated matrix of British classical studies. Just as the emerging category of homosexuality was related to the place of classics in the curriculum and to the idealization of the manly nation, so the hierarchies of feminine/masculine and east/west found their way into the discourse of homosexuality. According to Carpenter and Symonds, not all male-male desire was vigorous, and they distinguished between masculine and feminine forms, associating the former with Greece and the latter with the "Orient." Symonds identified two strands in "Greek love," Dorian and Phoenician ("military freedom" and "Oriental luxury"), which were brought together with the Hellenic "organising, moulding and assimilating spirit." He was at pains to distinguish this Greek love from other "unisexual practices," "from the effeminacies, brutalities and gross sensualities which can be noticed alike in imperfectly civilised and in luxuriously corrupt communities." In fact, Symonds claims Greek love as distinctive in a way reminiscent of current debates about the contributions of Egypt to Greek thought. The origins of pederasty could be seen as oriental, but "whatever the Greeks received from adjacent nations, they distinguished with the qualities of their own personality. Paiderastia in Hellas assumed Hellenic characteristics, and cannot be confounded with any merely Asiatic form of luxury." He further asserts that the "nobler type of masculine developed by the Greeks" is "almost unique in the history of the human race. It is that which more than anything else distinguishes the Greeks from the barbarians of their own time, from the Romans, and from modern men in all that appertains to the emotions."


This discourse of male homosexuality not only dehnes Greek love as manly, it barely touches on women. Women's lives are mentioned three times (taking up several paragraphs) in Symonds' Problem. Carpenter claims to speak of men and women but for the most part fails to do so, as he acknowledges, saying, "The remarks in this essay have chiefly had reference to boys' schools." Symonds connects Athenian women's social situation to the institution of pederasty and asserts that male love was preferred over female love because of problems in the types of women available to Greek men: "Athenian women were comparatively uneducated and uninteresting, and . . . the hetairai had proverbially bad manners." The "social disadvantages of women" explain the "idealisation of boy-love among the Athenians." "Sexual inversion" among women, on the other hand, is merely a "parenthetical investigation" in the discussion of Greek love, because it did not attain the status of men's love in antiquity. Symonds' project of justifying male same-sex desire requires a Greek love that was masculine and not Oriental, but he orientalizes women's sexuality by naming the women's quarters (gynaikonitis) "the harem or the zenana" and then accounting for "Lesbian" love by women's seclusion in the harem.


Sappho's erotic relationships to women were obscured by scholars who tried to salvage her good name, which was thought to have been besmirched by the ancient comic poets. For instance, Henry Wharton introduced Sappho to England ("Sappho, the Greek poetess whom more than eighty generations have been obliged to hold without a peer, has never, in the entirety of her works, been brought within the reach of English readers") and tried to correct "current calumnies" that Friedrich Welcker had "seriously inquired into and found to be based on insufficient evidence." In publishing his work on Sappho, David Robinson similarly felt obliged to defend the poet's "moral purity":


She expresses herself, no doubt, in very passionate language, but passionate purity is a finer article than the purity of prudery, and Sappho's passionate expressions are always under the control of her art. A woman of bad character and certainly a woman of such a variety of bad character as scandal... has attributed to Sappho might express herself passionately and might run on indefinitely with erotic imagery. But Sappho is never erotic.


J. M. Mackail makes this admonition: "Round the life of Sappho, and the nine books of her lyrics... a whole mythology, not of the most attractive nature, grew up in later Greece. It is not necessary to go into this; it would be hardly necessary to mention it, except that a word of warning is not even now superfluous against treating it seriously." Embarrassed though he is, he feels compelled to defend Sappho from the bias against women that led to the calumny. The German philological tradition of Friedrich Welcker and Ulrich von Wilamowitz introduced the notion of Sappho the schoolmistress, which similarly eliminated the possibility that there were sexual relations between women. For countercultural figures like Baudelaire, Swinburne, and Symonds, she was erotic though not necessarily lesbian; it was only in Renée Vivien's group that she was taken up as lesbian and made the center of the coterie.


Victorian classical studies were thus political in several ways. First, studying the classics was the basis of education for the ruling class of the British empire, and Greece furnished the ideal for educational philosophy. Second, once democratic Greece succeeded republican Rome as origin and mirror, it was further constructed as western, white, and masculine. Third, studies of women and sexuality were implicated in the privileging of Greek civilization, but not in any univocal way, for though shaped by the dominant discourse, these areas to some extent also contradicted it. Thus, there is not a single politics that one can point to: rather, there were crosscurrents. If the status of women debate drew upon a conservative strand in classics, the liberatory discourse on male sexuality contributed to and benefited from the valorization of the Greeks. At the same time, that discourse orientalized passive male homoerotic behaviors and explicitly eliminated women from view. There are important continuities between the past and present in classics. Scholars working on women in antiquity are heirs to the ways in which these scholars set out the field, that is, the issue of seclusion and the question of women's status dominated what little discussion there was. While the argument of some male classicists that women's seclusion did not entail disrespect may seem naive, there are ongoing debates within feminism about whether separate always means unequal. Indeed, this volume's emphasis on the homosocial is grounded in the prominence of the private sphere in the lives of women in antiquity and in the possibility that women's space might provide a productive as well as a restrictive site. The discourse on sexuality provides a similar point of continuity as well as discontinuity; for instance, the Victorian construction of homosexuality, with its exclusion of women, seems to haunt some aspects of contemporary discussions. Modern scholars continue to find hope in the paradigm offered by the ancient world as well as power in the canonical status of ancient texts. Perhaps, as Foucault's treatment of the "repressive hypothesis" would suggest, the compulsion to discuss sexuality is only another facet of the Victorian silencing of Sappho's sexuality.


Ideological Scholarship: Cut to the Present


In labeling the Victorian studies ideologically motivated, I am not claiming superiority for contemporary classicists over these scholars. I am, however, trying to counter those who would say that progressive classicists are the only ideologues. Most assuredly, we do have motives for pursuing this work; any superiority to which we can lay claim comes from admitting that fact. In this volume, we do not pretend to have gotten at the undisputable truth, nor do we expect to eliminate all our own preconceptions. In fact, it would be dangerous to do so, for if you go digging without knowing what you are looking for, you run the risk of missing it or even burying it in the haste to move on; on the other hand, if you have too sharply defined a model in mind, you will overlook what does not fit (and what might conceivably challenge your notion of what "it" is). In either case, the very knowing and looking will shape what you can see. The key is to be open to the ancient material, even though modern interests may motivate the research.


In the beginning of the twenty-first century, we, like the earlier generation, put the past to current uses, but, as was the case for them, these uses differ. As there were currents and crosscurrents in the tradition I have delineated, so modern scholars of antiquity are not a monolithic "we." Some look at the recent past as the "bad old days" from which they are liberated or which they are correcting; others defend the past and by so doing defend a present that is seen as not so different from the past. Some go back to the Greeks for reasons very similar to those of the Victorian writers; their goal is to restore the ideal held by men like Gladstone and Jowett. For instance, in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom seems to be calling for a return to the days of Oxford and Cambridge, where a group of good men studied Plato.


But there have been important changes in the academy since the Victorian era: classics on the whole is in a much more defensive posture today than it was in the nineteenth century. Studying Greek and Latin will no longer assure students a position in governrnent, and in fact, the contrary seems more likely to undergraduate students who increasingly turn toward preprofessional education. To the extent that classics retains its canonical status, those arguing for a multicultural and inclusive curriculum often attack the field as a haven for "dead white European male" authors. These attacks have led to a defense of the ancient authors, which casts feminists and others in favor of opening up the academy as the enemy.


But those of us who simultaneously find classics "guilty as charged," and yet remain in the field, clearly do not intend to throw it all out. Rather, we find our own reasons to continue the study of antiquity. If, as I have argued, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars looked first to Rome and then to Greece for similarities with themselves (though what they sought changed as their self-conception changed), today's scholars who are interested in women in antiquity, or sexuality, or both are divided between schools stressing similarity and those stressing difference. One strand of feminist scholars, whom we might call optimists, have seen differences between the past and the present, even locating a matriarchy in pre-Hellenic society; the pessimists on the whole have seen similarities or even causal connections. Those engaged in studying "sexuality" are also invested in a division over similarities and differences, in particular the question of whether it makes sense to speak of homosexuality, taken to be an exclusive sexual orientation to partners of the same gender, in the premodern period. This is the philosophical crux of a larger debate in classics about whether the past is "familiar" or "strange," which seems like the field's variant ofthe struggle over postmodernism, between essentialism and constructionism, in the academy.


Although there are divisions within feminism and within sexuality studies, for the sake of clarity, I will take as exempla the positions staked out by Amy Richlin and David Halperin. Richlin is a feminist committed to the possibility of improving women's lives. She maintains that in significant ways the Greeks and Romans were like us and


that it is important to find out as much as possible about women's lives in the past, for two reasons: both because memory and remembering are a major part of what history writing is, and because by putting women into our histories we move toward some balance in our lives.... I believe that we cannot know the measure of our own problems unless we know how long they have been going on.


Positions like Richlin's energized the early feminist project of uncovering bias in antiquity; by understanding the power that humanist versions of canonical works had in shaping contemporary patriarchal ideology, feminist criticism attacked the alleged universality of these male authors. By focusing on the continuity between then and now, feminist critics also sought to transform the present.


For the most part, those involved in the study of the history of sexuality are no less committed to political change, to the possibility of escaping the constraints of current sexual categories, but they tend to take hope from the distance between the past and the present. The discussion of male sexuality in classics has been grounded in the essentialist/constructionist debate and has addressed itself to the question of whether it is appropriate to call male-male sexual relations homosexual, as Kenneth Dover did in his groundbreaking study of 1978, or whether pederasty is not really a more accurate term. In antiquity, it is argued, the significant variables were not sex/gender but age and the hierarchy active/passive (or dominant/submissive). Adult males were supposed to be sexual initiators and penetrators but could penetrate either women or boys without incurring opprobrium because they would retain dominance.


That ancient Greeks and Romans had different sexual practices from our own can be crucial to realizing that change is possible. Halperin takes an extreme position here: "Homosexuality and heterosexuality, as we currently understand them, are modern, Western, bourgeois productions. Nothing resembling them can be found in classical antiquity." This statement from Halperin makes overt the agenda of much of his work: "I believe that if classical scholarship is ever to challenge heterosexuality's claims to normality and universality—its claims to be the sexuality of the majority of the population in all times and all places—it will have to do what it can to hang on to Foucault's fundamental insight." Paul Veyne and John Clarke are also explicit about the hopefulness they find in difference.


This view of ancient male sexuality has become a new form of doctrine, as if pederasty were the only form of male-male desire, but it should not be taken as the total picture when it is not even the whole of what was represented. Amy Richlin has argued strongly against the dematerialism behind the constructionist position, pointing out that in Rome at least, mature men who chose the pathic role did constitute a stigmatized group. Thus, while it is strictly accurate to say that there was no such thing as homosexuality (a sexuality organized completely around object choice) in antiquity, it does not follow that there was nothing that we would recognize as similar to what we call homosexuality, and it does not follow that all forms of male same-sex desire met with equal approval.


These positions within classics have arisen from various theoretical developments in the current academy. Let me begin with a brief (and admittedly superficial) outline of what is often called the second wave of feminism in the academy. Feminism in the early 1970s used gender as the primary category of analysis and focused on women's oppression under patriarchy, itself taken to be universal. Theories abounded as to whether the oppression was based on the traffic in women or the sexual division of labor or the division into public and private. Feminist historians were engaged in a similar investigation, although they used the terminology of separate spheres, based on the language of the nineteenth-century ideologues. Studies of women in the modern Mediterranean world, as well as in the European west, analyzed the segregation of men and women in everyday life, looking on "separate spheres" as a possible source of power for women as well as their oppression. As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg argued for the United States in the nineteenth century, the maintenance of separate spheres facilitated a peaceful coexistence between heterosexual marriage and intimate relationships between women. In her now classic paper, Adrienne Rich called attention to what she called the "lesbian continuum," in addition to lesbian existence, to account for women's relations to women; she posited that many women who might otherwise simply have been defined as married actually led a double life. Lillian Faderman's work on romantic friendship offered another way to conceptualize women's intimate relationships. The work of feminists such as Smith-Rosenberg and Rich stressed the similarities between women and identification along the lines of gender; Rich in particular opposed working with gay men, whom she saw as benefiting from male privilege in a patriarchal society. This strand of feminist theory, especially Rich's work, was associated with the definition of a lesbian as a woman-identified woman who exemplified an androgynous ideal of nonpatriarchal sexual activity.


While such historical work and feminist theory opened up the study of women, it has been criticized for blind spots, for underestimating differences between women (on the basis of race, class, nation, ability, and sexual orientation), and for downplaying the significance of sexual desire in its view of lesbianism. Some critics claimed that the early feminist theory was heterosexist in its attention to women in the world of men and to the binary of male/female. The attacks on the dominant discourse of feminism for ignoring the erotic component in lesbian relationships stimulated feminist attention to sexuality in the early 1980s. Feminists such as Gayle Rubin defined themselves as "pro-sex" and against anti-pornography feminists (e.g., Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon) who arose out of the context of radical feminism; they challenged feminism's view of women as sexual victims (and a focus on the danger of sex) and provided another perspective on women's sexuality (one that emphasized the pleasure of sex). These self-proclaimed sex radicals rebelled against a supposedly orthodox sexual ideology of lesbian feminism and emphasized sexual diversity; opposing the repression of sexual practices taken to deviate from a feminist ideal, they also shifted the focus from romantic friendship and egalitarian sexual practices to a valorization of sadomasochism and butch/femme roles. But if the sexual and particularly the butch woman was overlooked in women's studies, lesbians were overlooked in gay studies, which tended to be male dominated. Changing the name to gay and lesbian studies was an attempt to change the discourse, but it was not entirely successful. In a recognition of the difficulties, de Lauretis adopted the term queer to emphasize the shared status of gay men and lesbians as outsider. Gayle Rubin, who had launched feminist theory with the phrase the "sex/gender system" in her essay "The Traffic in Women" (1975), distinguished between feminist studies and sexuality studies in "Thinking Sex" (1984), saying, "Feminism is the theory of gender oppression. To automatically assume that this makes it the theory of sexual oppression is to fail to distinguish between gender, on the one hand, and erotic desire, on the other." Though Rubin did not mean this as a call for a radical break with feminism, it has been taken as such.


The fissures have widened since Rubin made her statement, however, and there now seems to be a polarity between women's studies and gay/lesbian studies on the one hand, and queer theory on the other. Gay and lesbian studies as a field tends to look for the antecedents of modern movements or identities in the past, whereas queer theory focuses on the dissimilarities between present and past and tries to problematize heterosexual orthodoxy by recognizing many sexualities, without tracing out an alternative history for a gay sexuality. Much of queer theory seeks to displace and decenter heteronormativity. Towards this end, it takes up the history of sexuality, following Foucault's distinction between acts and identities: "The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species." Thus, despite obvious affinities (these bodies of theory are related to liberation struggles; sex, sexuality, and gender are interrelated categories, etc.), there is not a direct lineage from feminist theory to queer theory, via gay and lesbian studies. Rather, the terrain is contested.


This history yields different definitions of female homoeroticism and suggest different lines of inquiry when we turn back to the ancient material. I started this section with the debate between Richlin and Halperin, and the question of similarity or difference: were women in antiquity like modern women or were they radically different? Whatever the empirical reality, we run the risk of making them seem similar by reading ancient women in the light of modern conceptions unless we are aware of our biases. These different perspectives show up clearly in readings of Sappho. For instance, contemporary feminists looking for a woman-centered culture have worshiped at Lesbos and used Sappho as a name to conjure with since the publication of Sappho Was a Right-On Woman in 1972, a book that mentions Sappho only once, aside from the title, and then only as a forerunner of feminism. Those arguing for the continuity of sexualities across time and a lesbian tradition point to Sappho: of course the Greeks practiced lesbianism; they invented it. A woman from Lesbos—a Lesbian—and a woman who sexually desires other women—a lesbian—were not interchangeable in early antiquity or even in the early modern period. In the early ancient texts, Lesbiazein connoted female lasciviousness and especially fellatio and was not dissimilar from laikazein, to indulge in any kind of promiscuity; by Hellenistic and Roman times the homoerotic connotation was added to the term. But in the Latin poetic tradition, Sappho was repeatedly interpreted through the lens of masculine sexuality.


Feminist theories of separate spheres and lesbian-feminist emphasis on romantic friendship, emotion, and gender are fruitful approaches for many of the ancient materials, because they broaden the range of women's activities that might be considered erotic in the homosocial world of women. The academic field of "women in antiquity" drew extensively on this phase of feminism and women's studies scholarship. This early construction of women does fit some of the evidence that we have, which points to nonhierarchical erotic relations in women's communities.


Much has changed in the interim, however; notions of seclusion are contested, and the lesbian continuum was challenged even in its original publication in Signs. The critique of the sex radicals adjusts the lens by heightening our awareness of specifically sexual desire between women, leading us to ask whether the sexual roles of butch or dyke have anything to do with gender presentation and sexual behavior in ancient societies or in ancient representations. If a man had to be sexually active to be acceptably masculine in ancient societies, what did that mean about women who desired other women? Would such a woman necessarily have been considered masculine? Was there a place for active feminine sexual desire for other women?


The growth of queer theory provides a constructionist model that can be helpful for the study of ancient women's sexuality. Aside from Brooten's work, which is devoted to women, there are only brief references to women and female homoeroticism, and these have not been nuanced. The assumption of "difference" in studies of masculine sexuality could also be useful if carefully applied to the study of female relationships. What does it mean to call Sappho or any ancient Greek woman a lesbian, beyond the geographic denotation? If we take the specifics of the male pederastic model and look for examples of women's sexuality resembling ancient male hierarchical relations of older/younger and dominant/submissive what will we uncover? Given the differences in male and female socialization, we should not expect to find a replica, but looking at men's homoerotic relationships could be valuable (as a hermeneutic device). Finally, attention to work in queer theory can enable a queer reading practice that challenges the assumption of heterosexuality not by a claim to have found something new in the past, but by a claim to read the past differently.


As a result of the complex history I have just sketched in, we seem to have several partially overlapping and partially successful interpretive grids, each with advantages and disadvantages. As scholars writing in the midst of these theoretical developments, we have the opportunity to pick our way eclectically, taking what is useful and making an amalgam of our own. If we can manage to keep feminism's attention to women and its notion of a continuity between homosocial/heterosexual/homoerotic, while recognizing differences within female eroticism, and adding queer theory's attention to the mobility of desire and its careful analysis of discursive practices, we may give a more complete understanding of women in antiquity. The focus on women will be enriched by consideration of the material on sexuality and the queer focus, which puts into question stable identities; the focus on sexuality will be enriched by turning the lens on women.


The Current Volume: Situated Scholarship


The essays in this volume are similar in that each argues from a specific body of evidence, not trying to fit it into a preconceived idea of women's relations to women, but they differ in that they adopt a variety of strategies, examine a wide range of periods and forrns, and come from a broad spectrum of disciplinary perspectives, including art history, archaeology, classical philology, and comparative literature. There are disagreements among us, indeed the editors have not always agreed, but we have deliberately not tried to impose a single point of view on the authors of the individual essays.


Paul Rehak's essay, "Imag(in)ing a Women's World in Bronze Age Greece: The Frescoes from Xeste 3 at Akrotiri, Thera," is located in the field of archaeology. Rehak examines the homosocial environment represented in Cretan frescoes that were preserved at Akrotiri on the island of Thera, destroyed by volcanic activity in 1625 BCE. Because "Aegean art contains virtually no explicit depictions of sexual activity or even personal affection," Rehak's work is concerned with the implicit and raises the question of what we are seeing when there is no "sex." Given the differences represented between men and women, as well as between different ages of men and women, he argues for the existence of ritual stages. In women's lives these stages are based on their knowledge and control of plant life, in particular the saffron crocus plant. This evidence supports the notions that there were coming-of-age rituals for girls in the Aegean and that female power and female knowledges were developed in women's communities. While age differentiation between the figures seems clear, Rehak does not make assumptions about power differentials between them but instead emphasizes the possibility that women gained power over their own bodies and lives from control over saffron, a plant useful as medicine. On the basis of the implication of initiation, Rehak hypothesizes a homoerotic connection between the participants.


With the essay of Marilyn B. Skinner, "Aphrodite Garlanded: Erôs and Poetic Creativity in Sappho and Nossis," the collection turns simultaneously to textual evidence and to female authors. Skinner opens with a famous citation from Adrienne Rich (about "the lesbian within us") and develops the idea that Greek women writers could take strength as poets not only from the Muses as images of poetry but also from Aphrodite. Her view hypothesizes a reciprocal, nonhierarchal, homoerotic relationship between goddess, poet, and women of the community. Skinner attends not so much to the explicit expressions of erotic desire in Sappho and Nossis as to the significance of the poetic expression of that desire. She emphasizes the homosocial end of the continuum, placing Sappho and Nossis in tightly knit female worlds where creativity and desire are realized in art. This essay asks the probing question of whether "self-sufficient female imagination unshackled from conventional perceptions of the creative process" can fittingly be troped as "lesbian." In Skinner's interpretation of these Greek women poets, we have not sexual lesbianism but literary lesbianism.


Ellen Greene, in contrast, considers the erotic elements in Sappho's poetry. "Subjects, Objects, and Erotic Symmetry in Sappho's Fragments" thus complements Skinner's view. Greene argues that Sappho's poetry rejects the conventional Greek pattern of dominant lover and passive object of desire; she analyzes the way desire is configured in Sappho, disentangling the poetic dramatization of desire both from ancient male models and from modern conceptions of female sexuality. Greene's essay reveals that through manipulation of voice and gaze, Sappho's poetry dissolves rigid categories of lover and beloved so prevalent in ancient Greek male homoerotic culture. This reading of Sappho is consistent with modern lesbian feminist notions of nonhierarchical sexuality. Greene argues that Sappho's erotic discourse and practice may constitute an alternative to the competitive and hierarchical models of eroticism common in male patterns of erotic discourse. Greene also relates the nonobjectifying quality of the Sapphic gaze to the flexibility of subject positions in the poems, a view of Sappho that is also consistent with queer theory's emphasis on the shifting nature of sexual subjectivity.


Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz's essay, "Excavating Women's Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting," raises questions about the ways in which what viewers think they know determines what they see. Placing women's relations to women on a continuum from the homosocial to the homoerotic, the essay's underlying question might be, When is a dildo not a dildo? As Rabinowitz points out, most claims about women on Greek vases are the result of assumptions and can be contested. Her essay analyzes the evidence for erotic ties between women in several homosocial settings, for instance, home, dance, wedding, and bath. The relations that can be glimpsed, Rabinowitz argues, cannot be securely interpreted either through the lens of male pederastic forms of sexuality or through the lens of heterosexuality, but a bifocal combination of the two can provide some guidance in how to read the images of women with women. Rabinowitz confronts the male domination of the form and culture but holds out hope for excavating some of what women saw when they looked at these paintings.


John G. Younger's essay, "Women in Relief: Double Consciousness in Classical Attic Tombstones," focuses on Attic sculpture and its construction of a homosocial women's space in the cemetery of Kerameikos. Because of the nature of the evidence, Younger's essay, like the other pieces on art and archaeology, emphasizes the implied intimacy and affection in the representations of pairs of women, particularly on gravestones. Ancient Greek women had important roles in mourning; the grave markers are often ambiguous in their reference, but women indisputably feature prominently in the inscriptions and scenes. In performing the tasks involved with mourning, women were constructed as subjects, active viewers, and participants. The homosocial environment (a woman looking at the scene would be looking at a woman looking at another [the deceased] with a gaze full of yearning) makes plausible the insertion of homoerotic feelings in the circle of the gaze. Younger's essay reveals a shifting of subject positions made possible by the instability of reference for the stelai, positing not a specific lesbian sensibility but rather a mobile desire circulating among the figures and the audience. As Younger points out, in some cases a homoerotic reading of the women on the stelai is plausible.


In "Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence," Lisa Auanger provides an overview of literary and art historical materials that serves in part as an introduction to the essays on later antiquity. Roman views of Sappho reveal a negative stereotype of the tribas or fricatrix (literally, one who rubs), which, like the Greek lesbiazein, connoted sexual promiscuity, not simply homoeroticism. Another form of homoeroticism, however, more consistent with normative feminine behavior, was not so harshly judged. Her claim that certain versions of female homoeroticism were acceptable and indeed normative is supported by her analysis of representations of women's groups in myth and the arts. As Auanger speculates, the hostility to female homoeroticism may be hostility to only one form: an explicitly sexual "lesbianism" discursively constructed by comedy and satire.


Returning to literary evidence, in "Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe: When Girls Won't Be Girls," Diane T. Pintabone deals with explicitly physical sexual desire in Ovid's Metamorphoses (a Roman author writing from first century BCE to first century CE), showing that many different readings of the story of Iphis and Ianthe are possible depending on how one understands sex and gender in the work. Iphis has been treated as an example of the masculine lesbian, the tribas who is considered the active partner. By placing the narrative within the modern discourse on women's sexuality in Rome as well as in the context of the overall structure of the Metamorphoses, with its focus on power, Pintabone counters that interpretation of Iphis; she is brought up as a boy but thinks and acts like a Roman female. Her desire is expressed in a way consistent with Roman norms of femininity; she is passive and judges her passion negatively. In Pintabone's view female-female passion emerges in the story as egalitarian but impossible to maintain. Though Ovid as narrator never denounces the love of woman for woman, in the end, Pintabone finds that the narrative reinforces stereotypes of sex/gender and the structure of patriarchy.


Shelley P. Haley's essay, "Lucian's 'Laeana and Clonarium': Voyeurism or a Challenge to Assumptions?," takes up Lucian's (a second-century CE Roman author from Syria, writing in Greek) Dialogue of the Courtesans 5. Haley's essay crosses geographical, gender, and theoretical boundaries. She raises explicitly the question of what it means for a man to write an essay or dialogue treating female homoerotic motifs. Haley discusses the position of the male author, but she complicates that category by considering Lucian as a member of a multiculture and speculating on his own sexual practices, asking whether his ethnicity or sexuality would perhaps have encouraged him to take a sympathetic view of his characters. On the other hand, as Haley points out, voyeurism or the desire to hear details is the driving force behind the narration, and it may have been the force behind its writing as well. Haley is self-conscious about the problem: is the utilization of contemporary categories of analysis anachronistic? Can those categories nonetheless reveal the depths of interest in the dialogue?


Finally, Terry G. Wilfong takes us to fifth-century CE Egypt and the discourse of the law with his essay "'Friendship and Physical Desire': The Discourse of Female Homoeroticism in Fifth-Century CE Egypt." Wilfong studies a document from the White Monastery, which imposed punishment on two nuns for "running after" other women in "friendship and physical desire." The homosocial setting ofthe monastery and convent made women's desire troublesome; as is often the case, the laws that were inscribed to control their actions also conjure up the reality they were designed to repress. They leave us evidence of active erotic groups within the monastery community as well as what their actions were (for instance, shaving one another's heads). The problem of studying female homoeroticism is made clear by the striking asymmetry between male and female: while some of the language correlates male and female friendship groups, there was a specific term for men sleeping together, which did not apply to women. Sexuality and discourse are explicitly related: in the monastery, controlling women's sexuality gives the monks power. Thus, the sinfulness of female homoeroticism is correlated with the sin of challenging the authority of the monks to teach. This text makes glaringly clear the ways in which sexual practices and discourses of women were controlled by men.


Feminism, gay/lesbian studies, queer theory, and classics form the immediate intellectual background to this current volume; they evoke different approaches to women's lives and female homoeroticism in antiquity. The prominence of these grounding discourses undoubtedly has shaped what we have seen and what has still remained invisible to us. There are of course dangers in using modern theories for understanding representation in antiquity, particularly in the light of current emphasis on the differences between cultures; if the premodern and postmodern do not have much in common, how useful can our theories be? The new theories cannot be applied wholesale to antiquity, but they can be productive when used to raise possibilities; ways of thinking developed in the present can help us look at the past with fresh eyes. We hope that others will be able to take our work and build on it.




“This book is the most thorough account of female homoerotic materials from the ancient Mediterranean I have yet seen in English. . . . I can easily see it becoming a standard work on ancient female homoeroticism.”
John S. Rundin, Assistant Professor of Classics, University of Texas at San Antonio


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