The modern conception of sexuality relies on a strict categorisation of sexual appetites and personal desires – heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc. In the ancient world, however, these words did not exist and the concepts they represent were not necessarily analogous to our modern understanding of sexuality.
Attitudes towards homosexuality in recent history have coloured the perspective through which we view the nature of sexuality in the ancient world. Early historians, archaeologists and antiquarians viewed notions of alternate sexual identity through the lens of their own social mores, and their discussion of these sexual identities was often stilted and couched in euphemism (when it wasn’t downright ignored).
Modern scholarship has done a great deal to explore the history of sexual identities in ancient cultures and, though progress is slow, there is now a wider consensus on the existence of alternate sexual practices in the ancient world. Despite this, the application of modern labels to sexual identities in antiquity still provides an inadequate exploration of the lived sexual identities of ancient peoples.
Ancient Greece has a reputation in modern culture as a society in which homosexuality was accepted – even encouraged. Realistically, however, this is an oversimplification of a complex matter centring on gender, identity and social structure. Ancient Greece has served as an idealised utopia for alternative sexual identities, with Oscar Wilde famously referencing, in his trial in 1895, affection between two men as the “very basis” of the philosophy of Plato. Similarly, the attraction of the Greek isle of Lesbos – home of Sappho, the “tenth muse” and famous poet and writer – to lesbian women has taken on an almost mythological light. But to what extent was homosexuality truly accepted in ancient Greece?
Ancient Greek society was not an equal one. Citizenship was an obstacle to freedom, and those who were not counted as citizens – for example, in classical Athens, women, children and slaves – did not have the same rights or social esteem extended to the citizenry. Even between male citizens same-sex courting was couched in the terminology of pederasty, with an older male – the erastes – taking the role of a teacher, and a younger male, usually in his teens – the eromenos – taking the role of a student. Ignoring the necessary power imbalance that this imposed upon the relationship, the eromenos was often idealised as an embodiment of the virility, impressionability, naivety and beauty of youth. Pederasty had its own complex social-sexual etiquette and does not reflect the modern understanding of homosexual relationships as being functionally similar to heterosexual relationships.
The relationship of Plato with same-sex desire is a complex one. In his Symposium, the speaker Aristophanes discusses same-sex relationships in a way that closely resembles a more modern understanding – with the two participants treated as equals whose relationship completes the other. In his Laws, however, Plato dismisses same-sex relationships as being unnatural and unsuited to his vision of utopian society. This contradictory view of homosexual relations is characteristic of our understanding of alternate sexual identities in ancient Greece – same-sex relationships did occur, and in some ways may have been accepted and even celebrated, but they were not the ideal partnership and the way that courtship occurred is fundamentally unrecognisable to our modern understanding of same-sex relationships.
Though Rome has a rich history of homoerotic art and literature, their conception of same-sex relationships between men hinges around a traditional viewpoint of masculinity and femininity. Male same-sex relationships were generally accepted amongst the citizenry of Rome, but only as long as the citizen was in the dominant (or penetrative) role. The men who took on the “feminine” or submissive role were generally slaves, prostitutes or entertainers, men with lower social status known as infamia – technically free men, but not afforded the rights and protections of the citizenry. For a free man to allow himself to be penetrated threatened his sexual integrity and invited challenges to his virility and masculinity.
Female same-sex relationships are generally less well-attested in Roman literature during the Republic and Principate, although whether this reflects an issue of decorum – a refusal to mention these relationships as they were viewed as improper in some way – is debateable. Certainly, the attitude of prominent Roman poet Ovid hints at this, with his claim that female same-sex relations were “a desire known to no one…no female is seized by desire for a female”. In his Metamophoses, Ovid tells the tale of a pregnant woman named Telethusa, whose husband claims that he will kill their unborn child if she is female. She attempts to conceal the sex of her daughter when she is born, giving her the ambiguous name Iphis, and she is married to a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe. Though initially the relationship between the two is described romantically – “Love came to both of them together / in simple innocence, and filled their hearts / with equal longing”. The tale ends with Iphis being so horrified that the goddess Isis intervenes and transforms her daughter into a man – “Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!” This tale betrays not only Roman attitudes towards the clear division of gender roles and a lack of ambiguity in gender identity, but also highlights the valuation of female same-sex relationships as lesser or improper compared to heterosexual relationships.
Attitudes towards same-sex relationships in ancient Egypt are hotly debated due to a lack of surviving literary evidence. In Talmudic literature, the ancient Egyptians are painted as a sexually promiscuous and “debauched” people, with Maimonides referring to lesbianism as “the acts of Egypt”. In truth, however, there is little evidence that such sexual freedoms existed in the ancient past.
In the New Kingdom tale of the Contendings of Horus and Seth, Seth assaults Horus in an attempt to dominate him and prove that Horus is unfit for kingship before the Ennead of Egyptian gods. Horus, however, catches Seth’s semen in his hands and tricks Seth into consuming his own semen. When this is revealed before the Ennead, Seth flees in embarrassment and is seen as unfit for kingship, giving some hint at possible Egyptian attitudes towards male same-sex relationships.
Perhaps the most famous case study regarding Egyptian homosexuality is the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two Overseers of Manicurists in the Palace of King Nyuserre. The two men were buried together in a joint tomb at Saqqara, and have been considered by some scholars to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history. A great deal of this argument is based on the interpretation of tomb decoration showing the two men standing nose-to-nose and embracing, the most intimate pose allowed by the decorum of Egyptian art. There are a number of flaws in this theory – most obviously, the families of the two men are depicted in the decoration of their tomb, showing that both men had wives and children. Is it possible that the two men were engaged in a same-sex relationship? Was this permitted, allowed, even encouraged, by their families? Were they engaged in a polyamorous same-sex and heterosexual relationship? The dearth of solid evidence provides space for a great deal of supposition, but unfortunately such supposition tells us little of use about the practicalities of ancient Egyptian engagement and understanding of same-sex relationships and alternative sexual desires.
Projecting onto the Past?
The nature of academia is to not only strive for new discoveries, but also re-examine past interpretations of evidence to divorce oneself from the attitudes and lenses that coloured scholarly analysis in the past. It is crucially important to identity the biases and prejudices that existed in the past in order to come to a greater understanding of the truths of the past. Still, it is equally important to note that our own understanding is tinged by the attitudes of modernity, and our own conclusions will necessarily require re-examination by scholars in the future.
In truth, the projection of utopian ideals of sexual acceptance – particularly in the case of same-sex relationships – onto ancient cultures does not truly capture the complexity and social nuance that surrounded the complex issues of sexuality and desire in the past, and continues to cause controversy in the modern day. The application of modern labels onto sexual attitudes in the past – labels still hotly contested by scholars today – creates the issue of forcing a modern understanding of sexuality onto people who did not necessarily conceptualise sexual identity in the same way we do.
Furthermore, it is challenging to answer questions such as “What were ancient Roman attitudes to homosexuality?” or “How did the ancient Egyptians conceptualise same-sex relationships?” as these questions inherently assume a continuity of culture through vast chronological spaces. When discussing ancient cultures, it is important to appreciate the length of time and space through which they existed, and summarising socio-cultural attitudes so generally can obscure the fluid nature of human society. Attitudes towards homosexuality in, for example, the UK, have changed a great deal in just the last few decades – how much might attitudes have changed in the span of, for example, thousands of years of Egyptian culture?
Nonetheless, it is crucially important to continue re-examining the work of previous scholars and to try to understand these attitudes in the ancient world, not just to combat misinformation but also to come to a closer understanding of this fundamental aspect of human identity. The truth likely exists amongst layers of complexity between dated and conservative interpretations of ancient sexuality, and amongst modern utopian reinterpretations – as in modernity, attitudes towards sexuality in the ancient world were likely various and multifaceted in a way that archaeological and textual evidence struggles to communicate.