Ancient History & Civilisation

Friction between women? Not always a bad idea

Even before Sappho and her poetic disciples gave the term lesbian a whole new meaning beyond “person from the island of Lesbos,” there were gals who felt erotically attracted to other women. Although Sappho lived and loved in the sixth century B.C., “lesbian” did not become common parlance until much later, when Christian writer Clement of Alexandria first used it in print in the second century A.D.

In ancient times, female lovers tended to be called tribades (singular tribas) from the Greek verb “to rub.” As noted earlier regarding Greek and Roman males, we need to remember that erotic attachments in those times were not an either-or proposition. A woman like Sappho might prefer her own sex as love objects but might also have heterosexual relationships, including marriage, some of them loving as well.

In the second century A.D. an author-orator named Maximus of Tyre argued that Sappho and her fans and followers on Lesbos bonded philosophically and spiritually rather than sexually. As he put it, “What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to have practiced love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he the love of men.”


Although Sappho’s home island of Lesbos eventually gave its name to the term lesbian, during the poet’s own era women attracted to other women were commonly known as tribades.

Nevertheless, most Greek guys found it easier to believe in mythical beasts than in the love life of lesbians. A substantial number of male writers scoffed in print at the whole notion; they simply could not credit that anything romantically worthwhile (much less sexually satisfying) could occur between females.

In later Roman times, only a handful of authors mentioned tribades in passing: the elder and young Senecas, Lucian, and Martial, in an epigram or two. They too expressed anger at the presumption of such women, finding the idea of female intimacy threatening, disgusting, illegal, or all of the above. Christian writer Tertullian later called them fricatrices—an even more disapproving variant of rub-a-dub-dub.

About the only clear-eyed male to comment on female proclivities lived much earlier than Tertullian. In the fifth century B.C., comic playwright Aristophanes parodied Plato and his fantasy about humankind’s original three genders. Aristophanes asserted that female lovers of women existed, and he called them by various names, including hetairistriai. Since any word with that many vowels is going to be a loser, the term did not catch on, although Aristophanes did.

The most curious part about male views of long-ago lesbianism? As they did with all matters sexual, men defined it as sexual penetration. Since, however, both parties were female, men assumed the deed was done using a dildo or an abnormally large clitoris! In other words, if female lovers existed at all, they must be capable of penetration. Because anything else was not sex.

The Roman and Greek poets who specialized in sexual invective and X-rated epigrams, such as Juvenal and Martial, got into a real froth just contemplating the notion of women “usurping” the male role. They too insisted that one of the partners in tribadic sex must play the part of the active male, either by using a dildo, her enlarged clitoris, or another appropriately shaped instrument. (Suffering Sappho, where’d I put that cucumber?)

Although Greek and Roman men had practiced or knew about intercrural, nonpenetrative sex, they likewise scoffed at the idea of women finding delight in this manner. The whole spectrum of nonpenetrative lovemaking between women was lost on them. Nonetheless, art historians and archaeologists have found a growing amount of pictorial proof. Depictions of lesbian lovemaking adorned numerous household objects, from mural art to mirrors, from jewelry boxes to bowls.

Contemporary writers on ancient sexual mores such as Bernadette Brooten, author of Love between Women, point out that “the concept of female homoeroticism as unnatural runs like a thread, especially through the Greek sources, both Christian and non-Christian. [The sources] implicitly contrast unnatural sex between women with the natural roles: men ‘do’ or ‘act,’ while women ‘suffer’ or are ‘passive.’”

So what did women in love actually do back then, and how did they lead their lives? We cannot know for certain, but what we can glean from scraps of text, passing literary remarks, letters, and graffiti, along with the richer stew offered by art and artifacts that survive from sources as diverse as walls in Ostia and Pompeii, mosaics on Sicily, and the rubbish heaps of Greco-Roman Egypt, it’s likely that lesbian couples two thousand years ago did the same things that female lovers do now, from kissing to scissoring, from full body contact to oral pleasuring.

Given the intense and often vicious masculine reactions to women taking the “male” role in long-ago lovemaking, however, it seems fairly certain that most long-ago tribades and lesbians—like unicorns—took care to remain invisible.

One impudent exception? Female pornographers. Believe it or not, talented gals who possessed a way with dirty words and a gift for salacious illustration produced a number of X-rated publications in ancient times—only scraps remain, but it’s clear that the whole joyous spectrum of lovemaking was represented in these forerunners to The Joy of Sex. (For amusing details, see the entry on pornographers, male and female, elsewhere in this book.)

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