Sexuality and Gender

24 Intersex Individuals and Transitioning in Ancient Rome

Danielle Hone and Siobhán McElduff


The Romans had a binary sense of gender: there were men and women, and anyone who feel in between those categories was likely to be killed as a child if they displayed signs of both sexes. For those intersex children who survived because they were hidden by their parents or caregivers, they might be classified as eunuchs as with Favorinus (for more on him see the section on eunuchs).


Just the possibility of transitioning [1] in ancient Rome may seem anachronistic. However, there are many stories referring to these types of changes—mainly from female to male. Some ancient historians even go so far as to state that such stories are explicitly nonfictional. The Roman author Pliny the Elder [23-79 CE] gives a few real-life examples in his Natural History. Some of his examples are pulled from the Annals of the Pontiffs, an ancient record by the priests of Rome, that no longer is extant.[2] This text would have been seen as inherently factual, especially by Pliny. 

Women transforming into men is not an idle story. We find in the Annals that in Publius Licinius Crassus and Gaius Cassius Longinus [171 BCE] a girl at Casinum[3] was changed into a boy, as their parents watched, and at the order of the augurs was transported away to a desert island. Licinius Mucianus[4] has recorded that he personally saw at Argos[5] a man named Arescon who had been give the name of Arescusa and had actually married a husband, and then had grown a beard and developed masculine attributes and had married a wife; and that he had also seen a boy with the same record at Smyrna.[6] I myself saw in Africa a person who had turned into a male on the day of marriage [in] Thysdritum…

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.4

Because of our evidence it is hard to know how the individuals we hear about felt about their gender or how the Romans would classify their change in gender. For example, in the story of Iphis (which can be found in the section on same sex desire), where a woman changes into a man after praying to a goddess and so they can marry a girl they were childhood sweethearts with, it is hard to say if we should consider this a transgender myth or just about the only way that the Romans could imagine a happy ending for two women in love with each other.

More sources sources on transgender men and women can be found in the section on same sex desire.

  1. the process of changing one's gender presentation and sex characteristics to conform with one's gender identity
  2. It is sometimes referred to as the Annales Maximi
  3. A city in Italy, now a monastery called Monte Casino.
  4. A general, statesman, and writer of the first century CE.
  5. A city in Greece.
  6. Another ancient Greek city.


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