Sexuality and Gender
26 Case Study: Transgender Men in Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans
LUCIAN’S DIALOGUE OF THE COURTESANS
The Dialogue of the Courtesans is a collection of exchanges amongst courtesans and with their clients in Classical Athenswritten by the Roman author in the second century CE. It is a comic dialogue, a literary form which combines comedy and philosophy. Particularly, Dialogue 5 stands out as it is one of the few ancient sources which touches upon what some scholars have perceived as female same-sex desire. The issue which arises is that while looking at this dialogue with a modern understanding of gender identity, Megillus (or Megilla), the customer of one of the speakers, Leaena, reads more like a transgender man than a lesbian. For the purposes of this section, I will be using masculine pronouns when referring to Megillus outside of the original text.
In general, the Romans saw gender as something completely reliant on genitalia and categorized transgender individuals based on their sexual preference –unless their genitalia miraculously changes and they become a ‘normal’ member of Roman society by marrying and having children (for more on miraculous genitalia transformations and sexuality, see Transgender Men and Sexuality). Megillus, although insisting on his masculinity, is seen as a woman by the courtesans and would have been understood by both the audience and the writer himself as a woman as well.
Another issue this dialogue has introduced is in academia. Scholars have been quick to assume that the ‘manly lesbian’ trope existed in ancient Rome from the emphasis of Megillus’ masculinity in this dialogue. However, scholars such as Boehringer (2014) have pointed out that the ‘manly lesbian’ trope may not have actually existed in the Roman Empire (p.161).
Whether Lucian caricatured Megillus for his gender or his sexuality is up for debate. What we can be sure of is that this dialogue allows for the modern reader to see the Romans’ understanding, or lack thereof, of gender as more than a binary system. It also serves as a warning about the accuracy of the sparse primary sources we have on LGBTQ2+ individuals living in the Roman world; how many of the few surviving depictions of members of the LGBTQ2+ community represent the actual community and not the stereotypes?
The following passage includes scenes where the consent for sexual interactions are dubious at best due to the nature of sex work. A character’s gender identity is also repeatedly questioned as Romans were not the most educated about such matters.
Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans V: Leæna and Clonarium
CLONARIUM: I have heard a strange thing said about you, Leaena: that Megilla, the wealthy Lesbian dame, treats you as a man would do; and that you lie in bed, doing I don’t know what. Ah! you blush? Tell me if it is true?
LEAENA: There is some truth in it, and I am ashamed of it. It is shocking.
CLONARIUM: By the Goddess, what does it mean? What does the woman want of you? What do you do when you are together? If you love me you will tell me.
LEAENA: I love you more than anything; but that woman is strangely like a man.
CLONARIUM: If I understand you, she is one of those women, of whom, there are so many in Lesbos, who do not like men, but enjoy the society of women, as if they were men themselves.
LEAENA: That’s about it.
CLONARIUM: Tell me all, Leaena; how she approached you, how she seduced you, and all the rest.
LEAENA: As she and Demonsassa of Corinth, who has the same tastes, were on a carousetogether, they sent for me to entertain them with my cithara When I finished singing, it was late, and time to retire to bed; they were warm with wine, and detained me. “Come, Leaena,” said Megilla; “it is time to sleep; you shall lie between us.”
CLONARIUM: And then? Were you to bed with them?
LEAENA: At first they kissed me like men; not simply putting their lips to mine, but kissing me open-mouthed. Then they embraced me and pressed my bosom; Demonassa became so excited that she even bit me, between her kisses. I did not know what they purposed doing. At last, Megilla, waxing warmer, took off her wig., which was wonderfully well made and fitted her snugly, and appeared with her head bare and shaved like an athlete’s, which alarmed me.
“Leaena, ” she said, “did you ever see such a fine young man?”
“I see none, Megilla,” I replied.
“Don’t insult me by calling me that; I am Megillus, and there is my wife” pointing to Demonassa  At that, Clonarium, I began to laugh.
“What, O Megillus,” I said, “you were a man all the time, without knowing it, like Achilles hidden among the maidens in his purple vestments?  a missing line here about the manly organs In that case, do you play husband with Demonassa?
“No, she said; “for I do not need to. If you choose, you shall see that my ways are much better.”
“Then,” said I, “you must be a hermaphrodite, partaking of a dual nature;” for, Clonarium, I did not up to that time, comprehend the matter.
“No,” she replied; “I am entirely a man.”
“I have heard that a famous soothsayer of Thebes, Tiresias, I think, whose story Ismenodora, the Boetia fluteplayer, once told me, was changed from a woman to a man. Has anything of that sort happened to you?”
“No,” she said; “I was born as other women, Leaena; but I have all the passions and desires of a man.”
“Do you mean that the desire is enough for you?”
“Let me show you, Leaena, if you don’t credit it, and you will see that I am not inferior to a man; that I possess something equal  to his. But try, and be convinced.”
I yielded, Clonarium, to her urgent entreaties; for she had given me a beautiful necklace and a linen gown of the finest fabric. She embraced me, just as if she had been a man, and kissed me, and the fulfillment of her desire made her pant; I saw that she vastly enjoyed herself.
CLONARIUM: But what did she do? How did she go about it? That is what you must tell me.
LEAENA: No, you are too inquisitive; that is quiet enough. No, by Venus, I will tell you no more.
Sources and Further Reading:
Hayes, E. & Nimis, N. (2015). Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans: An intermediate Greek reader: Greek text with running vocabulary and commentary. Oxford: Faenum Publishing, Ltd.
Lucian. Dialogues of the Dead. Dialogues of the Sea-Gods. Dialogues of the Gods. Dialogues of the Courtesans. Translated by M. D. MacLeod. Loeb Classical Library 431. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.
Anderson, G. (1993). The Second Sophistic: A cultural phenomenon in the Roman Empire. London: Routledge
Boehringer, S. (2014). Female homoeroticism. In T. K. Hubbard (Eds.), A companion to Greek and Roman sexualities (154-167). Malden: Wiley Blackwell.
Whitmarsh, T. (2005). The Second Sophistic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- 480–323 BCE ↵
- There are also scholars who understand Megillus as non-binary. ↵
- Taken from http://tinyurl.com/ub7ucb9 ↵
- This name means ‘Lioness’, a common name for courtesans. ↵
- There is a common association between the island of Lesbos and female same sex desire in antiquity because of Sappho, a famous lyric poet of the 6th century BCE who lived on the island of Lesbos. The words ‘lesbian’ and ‘sapphic’ are both etymologically tied to Sappho as she wrote poems depicting love between women. The sapphic nature of her poetry is widespread from references in Archaic Greece (Anacreon Fragment 358) and in Imperial Rome (Horace’s Odes, Ovid’s Tristia, and this very dialogue). ↵
- Lit. ‘the child-rearing one’, an epithet for several goddesses, including Aphrodite/Venus. ↵
- The word, ‘hetairestria’ is used, which to Gilhuly (2006), is a clear reference to Aristophanes’ speech of Eros in Plato’s Symposium (191 c). Aristophanes speech is also considered one of the only surviving passages in classical literature to acknowledge female same-sex desire (p.275). ↵
- Lit. “some like this in Lesbos” ↵
- Corinth, amongst other things, is known in the ancient world for its courtesans and temple prostitution. ↵
- a drinking party. It seems to be another layer Lucian adds in to exaggerate Megillos’ abnormal behaviour (in the Roman sense) as it alludes to symposia (drinking parties prominent in classical Greece that only men could host). Likewise, Megillos’ wife being present is also out of place in a classical symposion. ↵
- Lit. “invited me.” But, as an entertainer, Leaena was no doubt paid for her services. ↵
- The cithara is a lyre-like stringed instrument. Courtesans were expected entertainment outside of sexual activity. They were also expected to provide dance and music. ↵
- Come now!”; a colloquial expression commonly used in the classical period and an example of Lucian’s attempt to Atticize (to make his writing more similar to that of Classical Athens) his prose. ↵
- rising body temperature and probably sweating ↵
- Wealthy Romans, both men and women, often wore wigs. ↵
- The masculine form of Megilla. Megillos is a Spartan interlocutor in Plato’s Laws, so choosing this name may be another example of Lucian’s Atticizing prose. ↵
- Note that same sex marriage did not exist in either Greece or Rome in this period. ↵
- This is a reference to how, in order to avoid going to war, the Homeric hero Achilles was hidden on the island of Skyros disguised as a woman by his mother, the goddess Thetis. This story does not exist in the original Iliad but is in later sources. ↵
- People who were intersex existed in the Greco-Roman world like they do today. Although social expectations called for infants with physical traits of being intersex to be killed, parents often hid their children to avoid doing so. ↵
- A famous mythical character who played important roles in several stories such as the prophet in the tale of King Oedipus, who reveals to him the fact that Oedipus killed his own father. According to one myth, he was turned into a woman by the gods for seven years. He also figures in Lucian’s other works, such as the Necyomantia. ↵
- Ismenodora is also a courtesan. ↵
- most likely referring to a phallus/dildo ↵
- To the Romans, sexual intercourse requires the presence of a penetrator and a penetrated. What confused them about female same sex desire is the question of who penetrated. ↵
Lucian of Samosata was an intellectual of the Second Sophistic period who wrote a great number of essays and dialogues, most of which were satirical and witty in the standards of his time. Like his contemporaries, he tended to write in an Atticizing Greek prose. He was a Syrian who wrote in Greek, and in his works he presented himself as a foreigner who had to become culturally Greek to make a living under the rule of the Roman empire. However, Lucian avoided presenting himself as completely Greek so that he could retain the ability to write about outsiders as an outsider himself.