Sexuality and Gender

23 Same Sex Desire: Women

Table of Contents

  • Female Same-Sex Relationships in Ancient Rome: Introduction;
  • Sexuality and Sex Roles in Ancient Rome;
  • Female Same-sex Desire in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: The Tale of Iphis and Ianthe;
  • Female Same-sex Desire in the works of Martial.

Wall fragment with Two Women Roman 1-75 CE Plaster and pig… | Flickr

Wall fragment with Two Women Roman 1-75 CE Plaster and pigment fresco Credit: Mary Harrsch

As Sandra Boehringer states in her essay on female homoeroticism, our modern terminology of sex and sexuality “assumes that certain sexual practices are associated with the ancient world.” For instance, the use of the term ‘lesbianism’ in reference to ancient Rome implies that “the ancient[s] designated female homosexuality in this way and [that] there were ‘lesbians’ in Greece and Rome” (Boehringer 2013). The specificity of language, however, we now use in relation to sexuality wasn’t present in ancient Rome. Though, this does not mean behaviours we now define as ‘lesbian’ were not present then.

There is also the additional, odd standing, aspect of masculine-presenting women in Rome. There exists a scholarly belief that female same-sex relationships in Rome were defined by one woman being the more masculine partner and the other being the more feminine, as opposed to the age-based distinction present in male same-sex relationships. Frequently cited in this belief is the Roman author Phaedrus'’ [41-80 CE] story of the Greek god Prometheus and the creation of man:

Another person asked what system had produced tribads and soft men,[1] and the old man explained: that same Prometheus, the creator of [our] common clay, which as soon as it offends fortune is broken, the natural parts[2] which shame[3] hides, when he had made them individually over an entire day, he was soon able to fit each one to its own body, when he was suddenly invited by Bacchus [Libero] [4] to a feast. He came back home late and drunk, veins full of nectar and on unsteady feet. Then, half-asleep[5] and with drunken confusion he fitted the virginal [part?][6] to the masculine type and added masculine members[7] to women. So now desire is enjoyed with depraved[8] joy.

Phaedrus, Fables 4.16

Phaedrus’s description has been used repeatedly to claim that the Romans’ conception of female same-sex desire only allowed for “physically masculine women pursuing feminine women” (Boehringer 2014). However, in a more modern view, it’s questionable that the act Phaedrus is describing is an act stemming from female same-sex desire. A gender studies scholar may bring up, for instance, the question of genitalia – does this make the women referred to in the passage transgender, as they possess the label of ‘woman’ but have ‘masculine’ sexual organs? Or might it refer to someone who was intersex [9]?

Despite the real world examples displayed here, many scholars of the time did not reflect any understanding of such gender distinction in their works.


There was no prohibition involving female same-sex relationships (we are not quite sure of the laws restricting male same sex relationships). Societal stigma, however, was damaging towards those who were identified as same sex lovers especially of peers. For example, the shared duty of Roman women was to marry Roman men and produce legitimate offspring. As in the majority of ancient civilizations, infant mortality rates at Rome were high, and so conception was valued by the state as well as society at large. Exclusive same-sex relationships prevented this potential addition of population to the state.

As mentioned previously, the Romans defined sexuality via sexual roles: the dominant, or penetrator, role and the passive, or penetrated, role. The dominant would be male and generally older, while the passive would be female or a young male. This passivity became implied in all forms of female sexuality—making the ‘tribad an offense to the system at large for acting in a ‘male’ dominant role. A good summary of this thinking can be found in the Greek physician Soranus’s text on pathic, or passive, men:

[Tribads] are more eager to lie with women than with men: in fact they pursue women with almost masculine jealousy, and when they are freed of temporarily relieved of their passion…They rush, as if victims of continual intoxication, to new forms of lust, and sustained by this disgraceful mode of life, they rejoice in the abuse of their sexual powers.

Soranus, On Pathic Men[10]

Another writer that reflects the normative thinking on the subject of female same-sex desire is the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger [4 BC-65 CE]. Seneca writes on the matter in one of his epistles, claiming that women who have rejected their “womanly nature” (i.e. their passivity) have become, in bodily function, men, and are therefore “condemned to suffer” diseases attributed to men.

And they even match the men in their passions, although they were created to feel love passively (may the gods and goddesses confound them!). They devise the most impossible varieties of unchastity, and in the company of men they play the part of men. What wonder, then, that we can trip up the statement of the greatest and most skilled physician, when so many women are gouty and bald! Because of their vices, women have ceased to deserve the privileges of their sex; they have put off their womanly nature and are therefore condemned to suffer the diseases of men.

Seneca the Younger, Epistles XCV (LCL)[11]

As Wayne Dynes posits in his work on same-sex desire in the ancient world, by the later republic of Rome, sexuality was already an “inextricable aspect of the Roman political and economic dominance of their part of the world.” In this way, gender performance, sexual performance, and social performance had became completely intertwined (Pintabone 2002).


This section focuses on one of the stories presented in Ovid‘s [43 BCE-17/18 CE] Metamorphoses, a 15-book mythical narrative containing over 250 myths in total. The story of Iphis and Ianthe, which can be found in Book IX, while somewhat well-known within scholarship, is not as omnipresent as some of the other myths Ovid retold in his volume.

Like many of the texts in the Metamorphoses, the tale of Iphis and Ianthe is, at its core, a story of transformation. Unlike some of the other stories, though, the transformation that takes place is extremely non-normative: the change from woman to man. The story deals with an “impossible love miraculously redeemed” (Ormand 2005, 79). For a modern reader, the text may bring up questions of gender, sexuality, and identity, as well as questions about how the story seeks to resolve or complicate these issues.

Diane T. Pintabone begins her essay on Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe by stating that the text has always “raised more questions than it has answered about ancient concepts” of female sexuality and female same-sex relationships (Pintabone 2002, 256). While Pintabone is correct in her perception, there are still things readers can glean from such a seemingly impenetrable text. Although, the tale refuses to make its main topic, a female same-sex relationship, at all “visible, intelligible, or nameable,” it demonstrates honor and a rare sympathetic lens towards female-female desire (Walker 2006, 206). As Walker states, “it is demonstrably the most extensive treatment of female same-sex desire in the extant literature of the period” (206). Even still, it’s right to question Ovid’s lack of stability as an ancient source[12].

Debate around Ovid’s intentions with the story has created a diverse range of interpretations, both within the scope of the text itself and with broader applications to understanding the Romans in general. However one may interpret it, the story clearly pertains to the questioning of sexuality by its main character, Iphis. Although both Ovid as narrator and Iphis as a character posit that gender and genitalia are the same, modern readers should keep in mind the inaccuracies of this statement.

The tale begins with the birth of Iphis, born to a man, Ligdus, and his wife, Telethusa. Once Telethusa was close to giving birth, Ligdus warned her that she must produce a male child:

‘A girl is a heavier burden, and misfortune denies them strength. So, though I hate this,
if… you give birth to a female infant, reluctantly, I order… that it be put to death.’ He
spoke, and tears flooded their cheeks. (lines 669-670)

While this subject matter may be distressing to modern audiences, the Romans had a long history of infanticides. Ligdus’ regrets in instructing his wife to commit such a heinous act shows that readers are not supposed to find Ligdus particularly unsympathetic. Instead, it is just the reality of bearing children for many in ancient Rome. Telethusa is distraught at putting her own child to death. She prays to the goddess Isis to help her hide her child if she produces a daughter.

When the pains grew, and her burden pushed its own way into the world, and a girl was
born, the mother ordered it to be reared, deceitfully, as a boy, without the father realising.
She had all that she needed, and no one but the nurse knew of the fraud. The father made
good his vows, and gave it the name of the grandfather: he was Iphis. The mother was
delighted with the name, since it was appropriate for either gender, and no one was
cheated by it. From that moment, the deception, begun with a sacred lie, went undetected.
The child was dressed as a boy, and its features would have been beautiful whether they
were given to a girl or a boy. (lines 683-713)

Iphis’ androgyny seems to be what Isis has gifted Telethusa. Not only is Iphis indistinguishable in gender by name, but also by looks. Again, the text here relates gender to one’s sexual organs, which is incorrect. However, it does make comment on the performative nature of gender: that one can easily disguise themselves if they only call themselves by the correct gender and dress in the understood appropriate gendered style. It is in passages like these in which readers may see glimmers of a more progressive interpretation of the story. As the scholar Alison Sharrock puts it, Iphis demonstrates “the anxieties surrounding the acquisition of gendered identity,” especially in relation to masculinity (Sharrock 2002, 96).

Although some may interpret Iphis as truly gender-neutral in the modern sentiment[13], Ovid places Iphis into a gendered relationship with Ianthe. This passage, particularly its final line, clearly establishes the basis for a female-female relationship, even if one of the characters is unaware of the other’s biological gender.

Thirteen years passed by, meanwhile, and then, Iphis, your father betrothed you to
golden-haired Ianthe, whose dowry was her beauty, the girl most praised amongst the
women of Phaestos[14], the daughter of Telestes of Dicte[15]. The two were equal in age, and
equal in looks… From this beginning, love had touched both their innocent hearts, and
wounded them equally, but with unequal expectations. Ianthe anticipated her wedding
day, and the promised marriage, believing he, whom she thought to be a man, would
be her man. Iphis loved one whom she despaired of being able to have, and this itself
increased her passion, a girl on fire for a girl. (lines 714-718)

A large piece of Iphis’ story is told through a lament voiced by Iphis herself. Over the course of her musings, she refers to her “homoerotic desire as unprecedented and monstrous, as a strange kind of desire from which the gods should have spared her (Hallet 1992, 214). In part, one might interpret such a narrative display as Ovid showing “immense sympathy with Iphis’ plight,” as Hallet does, especially when contrasted with Iphis’ own self-hatred and condemnation of female same-sex relationships (217). The full monologue is included in the following passage. Iphis speaks:

What way out is there left, for me, possessed by the pain of a strange and monstrous love, that no one ever knew before? If the gods wanted to spare me they should have spared me, but if they wanted to destroy me, they might at least have visited on me a natural, and normal, misfortune. Mares do not burn with love for mares, or heifers for heifers: the ram inflames the ewe: its hind follows the stag. So, birds mate, and among all animals, not one female is attacked by lust for a female. I wish I were not one! Yet that Crete might not fail to bear every monstrosity, Pasiphaë,[16] Sol’s[17] daughter, loved a bull, though still that was a female and a male. My love, truth be told, is more extreme than that. She at least chased after the hope of fulfillment, though the bull had her because of her deceit, and in the likeness of a cow, and the one who was deceived was a male adulterer. Though all of the world’s cleverness were concentrated here, though Daedalus[18] were to return on waxen wings, what use would it be? Surely even his cunning arts could not make a boy out of a girl? Surely even he could not transform you, Ianthe?

Rather be firm-minded, Iphis, and pull yourself together, and, with wisdom, shake off this foolish, useless passion. Look at what you have been, from birth, if you don’t want to cheat yourself, and seek out what is right for you, and love as a woman should! It is hope that creates love, and hope that nourishes it. Everything robs you of that. No guardian keeps you from her dear arms, no wary husband’s care, no cruel father, nor does she deny your wooing herself. Yet you can never have her, or be happy, whatever is accomplished, whatever men or gods attempt.

See, the longed-for time has come, the wedding torch is at hand, and Ianthe will become mine – yet not be had by me. I will thirst in the midst of the waters. Juno[19], goddess of brides, and Hymen[20], why do you come to these marriage rites, where the bridegroom is absent, and both are brides?’

Scholars may differ on the exact interpretation of Iphis’ speech, however it is clear that Iphis’s fixation on being “strange” and “monstrous” due to her desire for Ianthe is reflective of the Roman’s societal fears around not only female desire, but female same-sex relationships. Something interesting to note is the lack of any ‘tribad’ language—Ovid defines Iphis’ emotions as neither passive nor active. Instead, the only aspect holding Iphis’ back from happily marrying Ianthe is her physical form. On first reading, this seems highly progressive. However, as Walker points out, “since the goddess Isis eventually transforms her body into a man’s, the narrative in fact legitimizes Iphis’s desire for lanthe, but it does so by eradicating the possibility of naming that desire “lesbian” or “same-sexual” or even “tribadic”” (Walker 2006, 217).

The day before Iphis is set to be married, Telethusa and Iphis pray again to Isis.

Then Telethusa took the sacred ribbons from her own and her daughter Iphis’s head, so that their hair streamed down, and clinging to the altar, cried: ‘Isis[21], you who protect Paraetonium, Pharos, the Mareotic fields, and Nile, divided in its seven streams[22], I pray you, bring help, and relieve our fears!’

After leaving the alter, Iphis walks out of the temple transformed, acquiring signs of masculinity as she walks: “her step lengthens, color darkens, hair grows shorter, and so on” (Ormand 2005, 89). In addition, Ovid changes how he refers to Iphis via pronoun. Just as Iphis exits, the narrator still refers to the character using ‘she’ or ‘her’. However, as the passage continues and as Iphis is transformed, the narrator switches to using ‘he’ or ‘him’.

Iphis, her companion, followed, taking larger paces than before; with no whiteness left in her complexion; with additional strength, and sharper features, and shorter, less elegant hair; showing more vigour than women have. Take your gifts to the temple, Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!

They take their gifts to the temple, and add a votive tablet: the tablet has this brief line:


The next day’s sun reveals the wide world in its rays, when Venus[23], and Juno, joined with Hymen, come, to the marriage torches, and Iphis, the boy, gains possession of his Ianthe.

As Sharrock states, “more than any other non-dramatic ancient poetry, male-authored as it overwhelmingly is, Ovid’s work gives space to a female voice, in however problematic a manner, and to both male and female voices which reflect explicitly on their own gendered identity” (Sharrock 2002, 95). It is this space that allows for a conversation about gender, sexuality, and identity. Although this story can be interpreted in many different ways by its scholars and its readers, its heart lies in the love between two women. Iphis falls in love, and continues to be in love with Ianthe as a woman. Iphis’ transformation into a man occurs only so that Iphis and Ianthe’s love for one another can be understood as what the Roman understood as “natural,” as the love that occurs between a man and a woman.

Once we read these stories, as well as others from ancient Rome, it becomes clear that female same-sex relationships did exist. These women, fictional and real, may have been something not definable by the binaries at the time, but we can now recognize them— “unnatural” though they were at the time.


Prior to considering the subject of same-sex desire between women in his works, it is useful to have a general introduction to Martial. He wrote under the Emperor Domitian, writing 12 books of epigrams (short poems; Roman epigrams often had a focus on obscene themes). They offer one perspective on Roman life. They may be pornographic with crude language; his poetry is often rude and vulgar even by the low standards of Roman society, and his style is laced with racism, homophobia, sexism and much more. His writing may be offensive for us today, however, it was considered comical by the Romans, or at least to some of them.

Poem 90 from Book of Martial’s Epigrams introduces a woman, Bassa,[24] along with a new type of absurdity for the Romans: same sex desire and sexual relationships amongst females. We would probably call Bassa a lesbian given that she provided sexual services to women; she is classified as manly (lines 2, 10) and her womanly qualities are denied.

Martial chose to assign Bassa the male suffix of “fuckster ” to present her as manly, using futator,  instead of futatrix, the feminine form of the noun, which further dissociates Bassa from ‘womanly’ women. Bassa is contrasted with Lucretia, who is the Roman epitome of a chaste woman. For Martial to deny Bassa as a woman, is one sign that he rejects her identity as a Roman and categorizes her as ‘un-Roman’: she may try to look like a Roman heroine, but she fails.

Next, Martial introduces the Sphinx (line 11), as a possible route to understanding same sex relationships. For some Romans, a same sex relationship between woman was viewed as puzzling, as well as discomforting and disturbing. They had trouble comprehending the possibilities of the relationship, given that neither of those involved was a man, and could naturally take the male role. The Sphinx, in Greco-Roman mythology was known for posing near impossible riddles which confused and confounded her victims. Here, Martial is implying that the mere idea of a female only partnership is so ridiculous or even threatening to the Roman people, that only the Sphinx would be able to have an idea of how it worked.

In this particular epigram, Martial decides to include a mortal woman to contrast with a mythical woman. His choice to incorporate both persons is to convey his view on same sex relationships. We should not be under the assumption that every Roman shared this view, but enough must have for Martial to write this poem and think his audience would enjoy it.

Because, Bassa, I never saw
You with a man, and gossip

never said that that had a lover[25]
and for each ritual[26] crowds of your gender surround you,

so you couldn’t be seen by any man who came along,

I thought you a Lucretia, I confess;
But – shame on it – you were a secret fucker[27]
You dare two cunts unite
To play the man, monstrous Venus,
Only the Sphinx could interpret this riddle right:
that where there is no man, there is adultery.

Martial, Epigrams 1.9

The next poem shows just how problematic Roman views of women who desired other women were: in this the Martial attacks Philaenis, whose lust is such that not only does she desire women, but she also has a voracious appetite for boys as well.

The tribas Philaenis buggers boys
and, more savage than a husband’s lust,
she pounds on eleven girls a day.
And with her dress tied up she plays with a handball,
and covers herself with sand, and with her arm
easily swings weights heavy enough for strongmen,
and covered with dust from the foul arena,
she is flogged by an oiled up coach,
and doesn’t she dine or lie down for dinner[28]
before she has vomited seven pints of unmixed wine,[29]
and she only thinks it decent to return to drinking
when she has eaten sixteen steaks,
After all this, when she goes at it
she does not suck pricks. She thinks that far too unmanly –
but she regularly devours the groins of girls.
May the Gods give you back your sanity, Philaenis,
since you think it manly to go down on women.

Martial, Epigrams 7.67


Sources and Further Reading:

Boehringer, Sandra. “Female Homoeroticism.” In A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, ed. Thomas K. Hubbard, 2013.

Dynes, Wayne R. Homosexuality in the Ancient World. Routledge, 1993.

Ormand, Kirk. “Impossible Lesbians in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry, ed. by Ronnie Ancona and Ellen Greene,79-89. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Ovid. Metamorphoses, trans. A. S. Kline. University of Virginia Library, 2000.

Pintabone, Diane T. “Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe: When Girls Won’t Be Girls.” In Among Women, edited by Rabinowitz Nancy Sorkin and Auanger Lisa, 256-85. University of Texas Press, 2002.

Sharrock, Alison. “Gender and Sexuality.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to Ovid, edited by Philip Hardie, 95–107. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521772818.008.

Soos, Carlin. AP Sex Ed. 2014. PDF.

Walker, J. “Before the Name: Ovid’s Deformulated Lesbianism.” Comparative Literature 58.3: 205–22. 2006.


Much of the material about Martial is about his humour (often term ‘biting’) and his influence on English poetry, so be prepared to read a lot about how funny and witty he is, along with comments about this material.

Bruce, J. M. The Index Expurgatorius of Martial. London: 1868. (Available online and handily collects all of the relevant epigrams of Martial, though the translations are rather problematic at times.)

Howell, Peter. 2009. Martial. Ancients in Action. London: Bristol Classical Press. Aimed at a general reader, so easy to follow for those who have little background in Roman poetry.

Richlin, Amy. 1992. The garden of Priapus: Sexuality and aggression in Roman humor. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press. This is very good on the aggressiveness and the violence of this and other Roman poetry.

  1. In Latin: molles mares (literally “soft/tender men”)
  2. Latin: naturae partes
  3. Latin: pudor (“a sense of shame/modesty/decency”)
  4. The Roman deity of agriculture, wine, drunkeness, and fertility. His Greek equivalent is Dionysus
  5. Latin: semisomno corede
  6. There is some question about how to translate this word, which is generi in the original Latin.
  7. Latin: membra
  8. Latin: pravo
  9. i.e. one who is born with genitalia that doesn’t seemingly fit the standard definitions of male or female sex organs. See "What is Intersex?” Intersex Society of North America, last modified 2008.
  10. Translation by Vern L. Bullough, Sexual Variance in Society and History, Chicago: 1975, 143-144.
  11. Translation by the Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press.
  12. For more insight on questioning Ovid as a narrator, see P. Culham’s “Decentering the Text: The Case of Ovid.”
  13. That is to say, a person who identifies as gender-neutral and outside of the male-female gender binary.
  14. An ancient town on the island of Crete.
  15. A mountain range on the island of Crete.
  16. A mythological figure. After marriage to King Minos of Crete, Pasiphaë acted as the queen of Crete. She is said to have given birth to the half-man half-bull creature known as the Minotaur.
  17. The Roman form of the Greek god of the sun, Helios.
  18. A mythological figure, known as a craftsman and an artist. He is also remembered as the creator of the Labyrinth under the court of Crete. This particular line refers to the story of he and his son, Icarus.
  19. The Roman form of the Greek goddess Hera.
  20. The Greek god of marriage ceremonies.
  21. An Egyptian goddess, known for maternal aid.
  22. Egyptian locations and cities.
  23. The Roman form of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.
  24. Martial uses this name a number of times. We are not sure if it has a double meaning or not.
  25. The Latin word used here, moechus, means a lover of a married woman, an adulterer
  26. officium, strictly means 'duty', but it can mean that in a wide number of ways
  27. futator
  28. The Romans ate lying down on couches. Traditionally women sat in chairs while the men got the couches, but that was long over by Martial's day.
  29. Romans mixed their wine with water; they thought only barbarians or alcoholics drank wine without any dilution.


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