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social sciences

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Rome: Ancient  
page: 1  2  3  4  

A few texts note the existence of males who enjoyed both roles, the double art of loving and of being loved (amare et amari). Seneca claims to know about a group of shameless young men who alternated roles and penetrated one another (qui suam alienamque libidinem exercent mutuo stupri). According to Suetonius, the emperor Caligula delighted in reciprocal intercourse (commercium mutui stupri) with Marcus Lepidus, a mime named Mnester, and "certain hostages."

At Romans 1:26-17, the Latin Vulgate of Paul's epistles attests reciprocated male desire, "males for males lusting in their desires for one another" (masculi in masculos...exarserunt in desideriis suis in invicem). So does the early second-century Apocalypse of Peter, which pictures the torment in hell of "the men who defiled themselves with one another in the fashion of women." Salvian, writing in the middle of the fifth century, noted the prevalence of reciprocal intercourse (mutuo inpudicitia) in Roman Carthage before the city fell to the Vandals.

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Eunuchs for Religion

Gender-structured homosexuality is most visible in antiquity in religious settings, and especially among the male attendants and servitors of two popular fertility goddesses, Cybele or the Great Mother (Magna Mater) and Atagartis or the Syrian goddess (dea Syria).

Two practices gave these enthusiasts their distinctive profile: castration, usually voluntary self-castration, and transvestism, both first attested in surviving Greek sources toward the end of the fifth century B.C.E. and in Latin some two centuries later.

Imagine a wild festival in honor of Magna Mater or the Syrian goddess, "our all-powerful universal mother." Young men possessed by a divine madness cast off their clothing, slash their testicles with broken flints, run down the street carrying their genitals in their hands, and toss them through an open door. The women of the household care for him, dress him in women's clothes, and preserve his testicles in a special receptacle, similar in size to a pyx, the little box used by Christians to store consecrated eucharistic wafers.

The best explanation for religiously motivated self-castration may lie in a failure to reconcile two beliefs widely shared in the ancient world: one, that sacred functions can be performed best by persons of perfect continence; and two, that voluntary continence is impossible for any intact male--leaving the enthusiast with no alternative but chastity by the knife.

The new initiates of either cult (called indiscriminately galloi by Greeks and galli in Latin) became itinerant revivalists, begging, beating their backs with cords (the droplets of blood were another offering to the goddesses), and sharing with townspeople and villagers their prayers and exuberant rituals.

Cultivated Greeks and Romans regarded the gender inversions of the galli with disapproval. They called them "half-males," semimares (Ovid), and half-men, semiviri (Juvenal). Catullus seems to have believed that castration turned eunuchs into women. In a wonderful poem on the self-castration of Attis, legendary prototype of the eunuch priest, he pictures the youth grieving for what he has lost: "Ego mulier," he says, "I am a woman [now]." Others viewed them as neuter--neither male nor female, or as a third sex (tertius sexus)--combining, as it were, male and female into one.

Ribald narratives like The Golden Ass of Apuleius mocked the galli for their high-pitched voices, their rouge, mascara, and face powder, their yellow sandals and saffron-colored garments of linen or silk. And like many of their contemporaries, these authors took the further step of imagining them as cinaedi and molles, passive sexually and inexhaustibly avid for the receptive role in anal intercourse, little better than male prostitutes. Indeed, Apuleius calls them "he-whores."

At the beginning of the fifth century C.E., the galli were still plying their trade. An indignant St. Augustine took it for granted that the rites of the mother of the gods included the enactment by her eunuch servants of the sexual role of women: muliebria pati.

Tribades and Tribadism

The Roman counterpart of the effeminate male was the masculine female, the (tribas; plural tribades). Tribas is the ancient term closest to our notion of a lesbian. Although the word is Greek and derived from the Greek verb tribein, "to rub," its earliest surviving occurrences are in Latin texts. A Latin-language equivalent was frictrix, literally "a woman who rubs." Although the noun virago (plural, viragines) usually connotes mannish goddesses like Minerva and Diana or female warriors like the Amazons, one author, the fourth-century lawyer and astrologer Firmicus Maternus, used it regularly to mean tribas.

Two epigrams of Martial offer an early Roman picture of tribades. They delight in masculine pursuits. They play handball, run, jump, wrestle, and exercise with heavy weights. They gorge on meat and drink unwatered wine until they vomit. "Bassa" slyly associates only with women, not to hide her adulteries with men, but the better to mask her sexual preference for women. "Philaenis" not only enjoys "rubbing" and cunnilingus; she penetrates women with an artificial phallus (olisbos) or her own enlarged clitoris, "fiercer than a husband stiff with lust."

There is no technical word in either Greek or Latin for the sexual partners of tribades. Martial calls one such person amica, "girlfriend." More common was to imagine them as wives. Tribades had "wives" the way cinaedi had "husbands." The astronomer Ptolemy mentions the "lawful wives" of tribades and Clement of Alexandria denounced women who married each other. It would seem to follow (though the evidence is very sparse) that tribades were believed to court, and "marry" adult women (as cinaedi did adult males). To the degree that this is so, tribadism (the class noun is tribaké) contrasts sharply with . Sappho loved girls. No one depicted her "acting like a man;" and she cultivated the femininity of her adolescent girls as carefully as erastai protected the masculinity of their eromenoi.

Sexual Categories

Romans were aware of the diversity of their own sexual tastes and practices and curious about its causes.

How, for instance, they ask, shall we account for the existence of tribades and passive males (molles mares)? The fabulist Phaedrus (c. 15 B.C.E.-50 C.E.) answers that Prometheus, while he was fashioning human beings out of clay, spent a whole day sculpting the male and female genitals. Before he could attach them, Liber, a rustic god of fertility and wine, invited him to dinner. Prometheus staggered home late, drunk, and half-asleep. He was so befuddled that he fixed female genitals to some male bodies and male organs to some female bodies.

Notice that even before Prometheus's mistake the unfinished prototypes were already male and female humans. The tale is about gender, not about sex. The tribades of Prometheus have the bodies of women and the "minds and desires" of males; the men he calls molles mares have the bodies of males and the sexual tastes and desires of females. In order to explain the origin of contemporary same-sex behavior (of which he disapproved), Phaedrus nevertheless traced both inclinations back to the creation of the human race.

A Medical Model

Behind the fable lie the two-seed theory of conception and the so-called "right-left" paradigm of sexual differentiation. The model grounded variation in sexual object choice on the embryology of Hippocrates and Galen and satisfied the curiosity of the ancients for many centuries. The Christian writer Lactantius (ca 250-ca 317 C.E.) has left us an unusually clear exposition of the theory.

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