BMCR 2023.04.42

Female homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome

Sandra Boehringer, Female homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome. Trans. Anna Preger. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2021. Pp. xliv, 380. ISBN 9780367744786.



The subject of this review is Anna Preger’s translation of the French monograph L’Homosexualité féminine dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine (2007) into English. The translation is polished and extremely readable, and it makes Boehringer’s study readily accessible to an English-speaking and non-Francophone audience. My review here focuses on how this translation, released with a new preface, is situated in relation to current scholarship and debates about its central themes.

Queer history-telling is enjoying a surge in popularity. As David Halperin notes in his preface to the original French edition of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome (2007), such investigations of and speculations about the past coincide with—indeed, often are motivated by—“contemporary emotional and political identification” with putative queer ancestors, even as we have all now learned to recognise, critique, and curtail our projections (xxxix–xl).

The current wave of popular queer history-telling shares with Boehringer’s study a hyperawareness of silences and gaps in the historical record, choosing at times to cross over into speculative historical fiction that mimics research into literary and documentary evidence to explore untold or non-extant histories and at other times to trace genealogies (both serious and tongue-in-cheek) for contemporary queer subjects.[1] As Kit Heyam describes in their recent book Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender, these histories are powered not only by the pleasures of identification that Halperin identifies, but also by the pressure to prove that queer—and especially trans—people are “real,” by discovering them outside of the present cultural context.[2] This emphasis on establishing the real existence of queer people is prompted in part by the mainstreaming of “gender critical” ideology, which seeks to eradicate trans and gender non-conforming identities.[3] That is to say, current queer history-telling in English-language contexts is responsive to the rising tide of hostility against trans and gender non-conforming people in the UK and the US, especially since 2017.[4]

Against this backdrop, the experience of reading this English translation of Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome is somewhat surreal. As much as a historical study in itself, it reads as a historical document, a time capsule from the early 2000s, before the spike in trans-exclusionary ideology that habitually weaponises “womanhood” (and often lesbianism) against trans women. Boehringer only makes two fleeting references to trans people, despite noting that the gender binary is anachronistic when applied to Greece and Rome, and her key term, “female homosexuality,” is a reference to sexual relationships between people assigned female at birth rather than people who identify as women. If the monograph were written now—rather than fifteen years ago—it would seem to contribute intentionally to trans-exclusionary discourse.

This is unfortunate, as Boehringer herself clearly faced homophobic and misogynist prejudice in the publication of the original book. As she describes in the new preface composed for this translation, Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome was condemned by French scholars (including Danielle Gourevitch, who warned that the book, in siding with homosexuality, might contribute to the “destruction of society”) when it was first published in 2007 (xvi, fn5). This reader found herself wishing that, in preparing her monograph for its translation into English, Boehringer had attended more closely to the changing climate and had acknowledged more fully the implications of her method—which at times focuses on ascertaining the female credentials of the women involved in ancient erotic representations—given the “new questions” that have arisen since 2007, especially having to do with “transgender and queer issues, with exclusion, domination, and social minorities, and so forth” (xxiv).

A primary consequence of the translation and republication of the book for English-speaking audiences without substantive revision, is that it is hard to discern whether its jarring aspects are conscious choices that Boehringer has made for this publication or simply holdovers from 2007, markers of how much has changed and how quickly. The near absence of trans people and trans studies from Boehringer’s analysis is the most egregious example of this, but it was striking also to find frequent citation, without comment, of Holt Parker, as a central source for the study of pederasty and pornography, given his subsequent conviction on charges of receiving and distributing child pornography.[5] The choice whether to cite scholars such as Parker is complex and personal.[6] What is strange in reading Boehringer’s book is knowing that she was presumably unaware of the broader context of Parker’s actions when she wrote (for example) that, “according to Parker, [the attribution of erotic texts to women] is a timeless feature of the pornographic genre”—a hyperbolic claim that seems, with the benefit of hindsight, to reflect Parker’s own affective identification with ancient sexual practices (259). Perhaps Boehringer would still choose to cite Parker in this manner, but it is disorienting to observe this published now and to know simultaneously that it is a historical artefact.

Boehringer’s monograph is divided into three sections: “Myth and Archaic Lyric Poetry” (archaic Greek literature, focusing on Sappho, Anacreon, and the myth of Kallisto); “Classical and Hellenistic Greece” (a broader section that includes Plato, vase iconography, comedy, and epigrams), and “The Roman Period” (above all, Ovid and satire). Her methodology is close textual analysis of normative representations. Much of her discussion deals with the difficulty of finding representations of erotic encounters between women in ancient sources—the subtitle of part 2 is “from silence to humour”—and she concludes that sex between women was, generally speaking, considered by ancient Greek and Roman authors to be neither hot nor funny, nor indeed politically relevant. It was a private matter and therefore rarely worth mention. This is a central thesis of the book, and it is a convincing one.

As a result of the overall lack of representation of sex between women, a central task of Boehringer’s research is to find examples of female homosexuality, and this means that a guiding principle behind the analysis is to ascertain whether the participants in erotic interactions are indeed both to be considered “female.” In making this determination, sex assigned at birth is foregrounded. To give an example: Boehringer’s analysis of the figure of Iphis/Leukippos—who is raised as a boy and, upon the verge of adulthood and marriage, is endowed with a penis through the blessing of a goddess (either Isis or Leto)—focuses almost all its energies upon proving that the young Iphis/Leukippos is intended to be interpreted (regardless of appearance and social role) as a girl rather than a boy. The intent of this, it seems, is to secure for Boehringer evidence of “female homosexuality,” but the consequence is that the method itself depends upon the assertion of a binary essentialism that erases trans people (212–237).

The implications of this methodological choice become fully clear in the Epilogue, where Boehringer discusses Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans. Here, a woman called Leaina describes her experience in a threesome with an established couple—a woman called Demonassa and her partner, who is named by Leaina as Megilla, but who states, quite explicitly: “Don’t feminize me, for my name is Megillos.” The characters proceed to have a discussion about the attributes of manhood (“I was born female like the rest of you [says Megillos], but I have the mind and desire and everything else of a man”). Boehringer concludes her epilogue with the claim that the “ultimate paradox” of this dialogue for its ancient audience was that it is “a dialogue without men” (332–333, 339).[7]

Boehringer’s focus on finding examples of “female homosexuality” compromises the care she is able to offer her gender non-conforming subjects. The effects of this are most stark in her identification of  a character from a Hellenistic epigram, “Dorkion,” as a “young transgender woman” (in French: “une jeune transgenre”) (183).[8] This evocation of trans identity is striking not only because it is the only unqualified application of a modern identity category to the ancient material, but also because Dorkion is represented by the epigram in question as someone who unexpectedly wears masculine attire (as Boehringer writes: “Dorkion dresses up as a boy.” (161)). Within a modern frame, Dorkion might be more readily interpreted as a trans man or as non-binary, but it seems that Boehringer’s sole acknowledgement that trans identity might be relevant to her analysis actually identifies Dorkion by their presumed sex and merely adds the adjective “transgender.”

Of course, the category of “transgender”—like that of “female homosexuality”—did not exist in ancient Greece or Rome. Across the spectrum of approaches to queer history-telling, authors face the same basic problem: modern categories should be projected only with caution and care onto historical subjects.[9] This is a point that Boehringer and Halperin each discuss at length in the preface and introduction. As Halperin writes, the application of modern categories to historical evidence can tempt us with a seductive pleasure, but it can also—and this is important—reveal the “inner contradictions” and limitations of the categories themselves (xxxv). The category of “female homosexuality” is ripe for such examination, especially through the lens of historical analysis, and it is disappointing that Boehringer chooses instead to entrench an essentialist and binary version of the concept, even as her research reveals the more complicated and messy condition of what it was possible to imagine when it came to eroticism and gender in ancient Greek and Latin literature.

It would be perhaps unfair to judge Boehringer’s monograph for not speaking to the conversations and concerns that have become prominent since its initial publication in French in 2007. But the absence of clear acknowledgement that its methodology depends upon imposing binary sex-based identity onto its research subjects—including those who explicitly deny or evade this identity—seems to be a mistake. In her new preface, Boehringer discusses the negative reception of the book and the challenge of writing and researching minority sexualities—and, indeed, it feels regrettable to write a critical review of the translation in light of this. Yet, it is more regrettable that the book—or at least its new preface—does not engage more carefully with gender fluidity and trans experience, especially given that much of the ire that was once directed at cis lesbians is now trained on trans people and especially on trans women.



[1]  Speculative historical fiction: Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of a Fox. New York: Random House, 2018. Juliet Jacques, Variations. London: Influx Press, 2021. Popular queer histories: Kirsty Loehr, A Short History of Queer Women. London: Oneworld Publications, 2022.

[2]  Kit Heyam, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender. London: Basic Books, 2022, 22–28.

[3]  Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, “Statement on the Genocidal Nature of the Gender Critical Movement’s Ideology and Practice.” November 29, 2022.

[4]  Ruth Pearce, Sonja Erikainen, and Ben Vincent, “TERF Wars: An Introduction,” The Sociological Review Monographs 68.4 (2020), 677–698.

[5]  Sarah Scullin, “Making a Monster.” Eidolon. March 24, 2016.

[6]  Marguerite Johnson, “Should Academics Cite Those Who Have Breached Moral and Humane Borders?The Conversation (June 21, 2016).

[7]  The translations presented here are those used in Boehringer’s text.

[8]  The epigram in question is Asclepiades 12.161.

[9]  On care in the writing of trans history, see Heyam (2022), 221–222.