- L’Homosexualité féminine dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine by Sandra Boehringer
Until recently, I held several informed assumptions about sexuality in the ancient world: (a) that without exception the ancient Greeks and Romans did not define categories of sexual activity by the sex of the object of desire (as in the modern categories of hetero- and homosexual); (b) that female homoerotic activity occupied roughly the same space of social value in ancient Greece as in ancient Rome; (c) that in so far as it could be discerned, female homoerotic activity was depicted in Greece and Rome according to the male pederastic model; (d) that no significant discourse existed about a form of female homoeroticism that was outside of the asymmetric norm defined by such a model; (e) that in keeping with the male pederastic model, women who were sexually attracted to other women were figured as gender deviants, and particularly as being masculine; and (f) that such women were regularly figured as having monstrously large clitorises which were thought—fantastically—to mimic an erect phallus. Thanks to Sandra Boehringer’s incisive study, I now believe every one of these assumptions to be wrong.
Boehringer does three things remarkably well in this book. She argues for the presence of an ancient Greek and Roman discourse about female-female sexual behavior. She demonstrates convincingly that there was an understanding of such behavior that was entirely outside of discussions of hermaphroditism and/or women with unusual masculine traits. And finally, she traces shifts and developments in attitudes toward this idea of female homoeroticism with acute attention to the historical contexts of her literary, visual, and scientific sources. Unlike some other critics who have wanted to see a notion of modern “lesbianism” in the ancient world, moreover, Boehringer develops her arguments within a careful Foucauldian framework. As she says late in the book, “une catégorie n’a de valeur que dans un système, et le système de valeurs des Anciens n’est pas le nôtre” (362). Unlike that of Hallett and Brooten, then, Boehringer’s female homoeroticism is not a transhistorical essence that has been curiously interpreted by the Greeks and Romans. Rather, Boehringer sees a separate category of sexual behavior about which the Greeks and Romans wrote, often obliquely, sometimes disparagingly but, surprisingly, only very rarely with a suggestion that such behavior presented a problem.
After laying out her theoretical approach, Boehringer proceeds chronologically, beginning with Greek lyric poetry, including sections on early Greek myth, Attic pottery, Greek comedy, Greek philosophy (esp. Plato and Aristotle), Hellenistic poetry, Augustan poetry (esp. Ovid), Roman satire and invective (Petronius, Martial, Juvenal), a brief section on scientific and astrological writings, and ending with an epilogue on late imperial Greek literature (Lucian). I will focus here on some of the readings that provide the most important challenges to current scholarship on ancient sexual practice.
Boehringer’s reading of Sappho, which draws on the work of Winkler and [End Page 163] Stehle, is important for later developments in the book. She is careful to distinguish the “I” of the poem (sometimes, as in poem 1, the multiple Sapphos within the narrative frame) from the figure of Sappho the author (54). She then goes on to demonstrate that, contrary to the arguments of scholars in the middle of the last century, the language that the narrator uses to describe her love affairs is the (usually euphemistic) language of physical pleasure typical of archaic Greek lyric (56–58). But what is particularly important about Sappho’s expressions of desire is that, “cet érôs n’est jamais décrit comme une différence stigmatisée par le monde extérieur et condamnée par la société.” Even more to the point, in a complex poem like 31 (φαίνεταί μοι), the speaker draws no distinction between the feeling of desire expressed by the speaker and the desire suggested to be felt by the young man in the poem who sits opposite the beloved.
In fact, as Boehringer makes abundantly clear, no...