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social sciences

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Greece: Ancient  
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What astonishes still is that the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) is the first author who can be shown with certainty to speak of Sappho's eros for her own sex. For some six centuries after her death, ancient critics, familiar with a far wider range of her poetry than we, pictured Sappho not as a lover of girls but as a promiscuous lover of males. At least four male poets were asserted to have been her lovers. The playwright Menander, writing about 300 B.C.E., launched an early version of a tenacious legend: Sappho fell in love with a handsome ferryman named Phaon; her love was unrequited; in despair, she threw herself off a high cliff into the sea.

In Rome, during the first century C.E., Sappho began to acquire the defining characteristics of a : aggressive, delighting in masculine pursuits, assuming the sexually active role with women. (The word, though Greek, appears for the first time around 90 C.E. in several of Martial's epigrams.) Ovid masculinizes her by reimagining the legendary story of her unrequited love for Phaon as a fable of gender reversal. Ovid portrays Phaon as a tender adolescent, the first down just appearing on his cheeks (when he would have been more appropriately loved by men) and Sappho as a plain, mannish, middle-aged woman who has usurped the role of pursuer.

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We catch another moment of transition to tribadism in a verse by Horace--the phrase is "mascula Sappho." The adjective has provoked a copious commentary. Some say he meant that Sappho wrote as well as a man, others that Sappho preferred intellectual pursuits to "the distaff and the spindle," or that mascula was a reference to the bravery of her suicidal leap.

Gradually, opinion clustered around the view that mascula implied tribadism, though the implication was regularly denied. Porphirion, a third-century commentator on Horace, is explicit: "Sappho is masculine, either because she wrote poetry, an art more often cultivated by men, or because she is maligned as having been a tribade."

The Age of Hadrian, and Beyond

The early structure of pederasty--asymmetry of age and role, mode of intercourse, and the gender troubles associated with consensual passivity--remains surprisingly stable from the classical period to the end of antiquity. At the same time, later Greek texts of a welcome diversity suggest that the male-male sexual culture that flourished in the Greco-Roman cosmopolis of the second and third centuries C.E. was more flexible, looser socially, and more egalitarian than that shaped by the constraints of the classical polis.

A collection of model love letters by the rhetorician Flavius Philostratus (ca 170-245 C.E.) offers a sample of atypical relationships and attitudes. In one letter, the erastes is poor. He is trying to persuade the handsome boy he is in love with to prefer him to rich suitors who are also courting him. The rich, he claims, offer only money; they buy their boyfriends. The poor man offers instead true love and good character: "The rich man calls you his eromenos, I call you my master. He calls you his servant, I call you my god."

In another letter, the lover is a foreigner rather than a citizen. He supports his suit by citing famous eromenoi who were complaisant to foreigners: Patroclus did not spurn Achilles; Agesilaus, king of Sparta, loved the Persian boy Megabates; Zeus loved Ganymede, a mortal and son of a Trojan prince. The moral: Put aside the restrictive conventions of the past. "Let our tribe be the tribe of Eros!"

In a third letter, all the classical pederastic conventions are overturned. The boy is a prostitute. His happy client, assuming the role of erastes, tells him to be proud of his naked beauty and his generosity in sharing it: "Your house is a citadel of beauty, those who enter are priests and sacred envoys, their payments are tribute money. Rule graciously over your subjects, take their offerings, accept their adoration."

Taxonomies of Sexual Orientation

The earliest surviving classification of sexual preference is Plato's creation myth in the Symposium. In the beginning, there were three sexes: male, female, and , a third sex anatomically both male and female. These creatures were spherical. They had four hands and as many legs, and their faces and genitals were inconveniently located on opposite sides of their bodies. So Zeus ordered Apollo to cut them in half and move their genitals to the front. Each of us, ever since, has been seeking our matching halves, whence Plato's conceit that love is a name for the desire and pursuit of the whole.

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