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Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities

Author(s): Ruth Mazo Karras


Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 4 (Oct., 2000), pp. 1250-1265
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
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Review Essay
Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities

RUTH MAZO KARRAS

GREEK AND ROMAN ANTIQUITY once impinged on the consciousness of modern


historians for the models they provided of democracy and empire, political theory
and military strategy. Today, if modern historians think about ancient Greece and
Rome, they are quite likely to do so in the context of the history of sexuality. One
reason for the relatively high visibility of the ancient world in this subdiscipline is
the apparent Greek acceptance of (some) male same-sex relations, which makes
such an apparent contrast with the contemporary situation. Since 1978, when
Kenneth Dover broke the taboo on discussion of ancient same-sex relations in
polite scholarly circles with GreekHomosexuality,scholarlyworks have followed one
another fast and furiously.t The level of discourse in this discussion has been both
extremely scholarly-whole theories often turning on the interpretation of certain
words or individual passages in fairly arcane documents-and extremely vehement,
revealing that these are issues about which scholars care even more than most
historians usually care about their subjects.2 The reasons are not far to seek:
scholars' approaches to issues of gender and sexuality often have real-world
political antecedents or ramifications, which they see no reason to hide.
Recent scholarship on ancient sexualities (or the lack of ancient sexualities, since
some scholars deny the applicability of "sexuality" to the period) has reached
consensus, if not complete agreement, on two main points: the social construction
of sexuality (that "sexuality"is not a thing that can be found in all cultures but is
created by the various discourses of particular societies), and the active/passive
dichotomy (that the ancient world, both Greek and Roman, categorized sexual
behaviors or identities not by the gender of the participants but by the sexual role
each played). These ideas are still relatively novel, especially to nonspecialists, and

I wish to thank Christie Balka, Martha Davis, Ralph Hexter, Chris Karras, Janice Siegel, and Dan
Tompkins, as well as three anonymous readers for the AHR, for their thoughtful readings of earlier
versions of this article. All opinions, of course, are my own.
I Kenneth J. Dover, GreekHomosexiuality(Cambridge, 1978).
2 As an example of the latter, see David Halperin's attack on Amy Richlin in "Forgetting Foucault:

Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality,"Representations63 (1998): 91-120, esp. 104-05. Slightly
less vitriolic but similarly reflecting a heavy personal involvement in the argument is Richlin's "Zeus
and Metis: Foucault, Feminism, Classics," Helios 18 (1991): 160-80. Marilyn B. Skinner, "Zeus and
Leda: The Sexuality Wars in Contemporary Classical Scholarship," Thamyris3, no. 1 (1996): 103-23,
also available on the World Wide Web at http://www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/skinzeus.html,
provides an overview of the controversy.

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Active/Passive, Acts/Passions 1251

some of the works discussed here are concerned with establishing them; other
works, however, take these two points as the new orthodoxy to be demolished.
The concept "the ancient world" is problematic in itself, implying as it does that
cultures from archaic Greece to imperial Rome may be lumped together. These
cultures do seem to share some fundamental features with regard to sexuality,
notably a focus on activity versus passivity. These features, however, characterize
many other pre-modern and modern Mediterranean (and other) cultures as well.
Other differences-a greater acceptance of pederasty by Athenians, a lower
valuation of moderation among Romans-depend a great deal on what sort of texts
one reads. The books under review all speak to particular historical moments and
groups of texts, and most do not make claims about ancient culture generally.
Because my purpose is largely to identify trends in classical scholarship that may
interest historians of other periods, I have not attempted to build on these
individual studies a broad, comparative overview of Greek and Roman sexualities.
After discussing some of the theoretical issues that currentlyexercise the field, I will
move roughly chronologically, dealing first with two books on Greece, then two on
the Hellenistic/Roman world.

ALTHOUGH THE THEORETICAL POSITION that sexuality is socially constructed has


become dogma in the field, much scholarly writing still presents it as a new and
radical idea. This is in part because it is counterintuitive and has had little effect on
attitudes outside the academy. Fundamentally, social constructionism argues that
the categories in which we think about sexuality-like homosexuality and hetero-
sexuality-are not universal but are a creation of our culture.3 Its opposite, called
by social constructionists "essentialism," argues that there are fundamentally
different kinds of people, that in every culture there are those with homosexual,
heterosexual, and various other orientations-although of course different societies
may think about them and treat them quite differently. The popular lists of "famous
gays in history" are essentialist in conception. Although humanities scholarship in
the 1990s has almost universally rejected this view,4 such essentialism is implicit in
the contemporary search for genetic markers or biological corollaries of a
predisposition to homosexuality. It is also congenial to many gay activists who
believe that society will be more tolerant if it understands homosexuality as
something inborn, not chosen. Social construction does not imply that individuals
choose their own identities-it is the discourses of the broader culture, for example
medical, legal, or religious systems, that construct systems of sexual identities-but

3Edward Stein, ed., Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientationand the Social ConstructionistControversy
(New York, 1990), unites some of the early texts in this discussion.
4 Practically no one claims to be an essentialist. Eva Cantarella, Bisexualityin the Ancient World,
Cormac 6 Cuilleanain, trans. (New Haven, Conn., 1992), by its title and continuing use of the terms
"homosexuality,""heterosexuality,"and "bisexuality,"would seem to fall into the essentialist camp, but
Cantarella seems to be using "homosexuality"as synonymous with "homosexual behavior" and rarely
writes of people as being "homosexuals"or "bisexuals."When she does do so, in the case of "passive
homosexuals" (p. 113), the context indicates that she means those engaged in homosexual practices,
rather than orientation: she is discussing a law that punished people for their actions.

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1252 Ruth Mazo Karras

nevertheless it is often misunderstood as implying that these identities are not


"real."
It is helpful to distinguish two versions of the social constructionist argument.5
The more moderate of the two states that the meanings that people put on sex acts
or desires are different in different cultures, that we cannot assume that the
categories in other times and cultures are the same as ours (that a man who has sex
with both men and women is "bisexual," for example), and that as historians we
must examine the attitudes and mentalities of any given society to see how that
particular society constructed sexual identities. It may be the case that we find roles
(active or passive) more important than object choices, but the opposite may also
be true. It may be the case that we find no deeply felt personal identity based on
sexual preference, but the opposite may also be true. While we cannot assume
congruence with modern categories, neither can we assume dissonance with them.
The stronger version of social constructionism, relying on the insights of Michel
Foucault, states that not only the particular categories familiar to us but also the
very notion of a sexual orientation are creations of bourgeois capitalism.6 Only in
nineteenth-century Europe and North America did people come to view their
sexual preferences as part of what constituted them as individuals. People in other
societies may have had preferences for a particular type of partner, role, or act, but
these preferences did not define them as a type of person. An "identity"based on
sexuality was a categorization of convenience in earlier eras but was not psychically
deep. The founding exponents of this school of thought include Jeffrey Weeks for
the nineteenth century and David Halperin for ancient Greece.
It may be impossible to delve far enough into the psyches of ancient people to
understand what sexual subjectivities they may or may not have had. This is true for
many other aspects of their lives and mentalities besides the sexual. When Halperin
argues that the very concept of "a sexuality" was unknown to ancient Greeks, he
understands "sexuality" as a system of discourse. If we define "sexuality" as a
creation of nineteenth-century medical discourse, we can all agree that the Greeks
did not have such a concept, but it is an open question whether they may not have
had something else that could also be called "sexuality"by someone using a less
restricted definition. Halperin is careful in his recent work to note that he is not
denying the existence of sexual identities before the modern period but of sexual
orientations, which are quite different.7 Other scholars, however, have used

5 John Thorp, "The Social Construction of Homosexuality," Phoenix 46 (1992): 54-61, calls these
the "weak" and "strong"forms of social constructionism.
6 Michel Foucault, The Histo;y of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, Robert Hurley, trans. (New
York, 1990).
7 See, for example, Jeffrey Weeks, Against Nature:Essays in Histoiy, Sexuality,and Identity(London,
1991), 92: "these social identities and intimacies based on sex are relatively new. They have not, could
not have existed throughout the mists of time, because the conditions that gave rise to them just did
not exist";and David Halperin, One HundredYearsof Homosexuality(New York, 1990), 27: "Before the
scientific construction of 'sexuality' as a supposedly positive, distinct, and constitutive feature of
individual human beings-an autonomous system within the physiological and psychological economy
of the human organism-certain kinds of sexual acts could be individuallyevaluated and categorized,
and so could certain tastes or inclinations, but there was no conceptual apparatus available for
identifying a person's fixed and determinate sexual orientation,much less for assessing and classifying
it." Besides Foucault, Mary McIntosh's article originally published in 1968 was also influential on
Weeks: McIntosh, "The Homosexual Role," in The Making of the Modern Homosexual, Kenneth

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Active/Passive,Acts/Passions 1253

Foucault's ideas without the careful reading that characterizes Halperin's work, and
have used it simply to say that sexuality is not worth studying before the modern era.
Most modern scholars who draw on Foucault rely mainly on the first, introduc-
tory volume in his Historyof Sexuality.He further discussed the ancient world in the
second and third volumes, The Uses of Pleasure and The Careof the Self, dealing with
fifth-century Athenian culture and Hellenistic culture respectively.8 In these latter
volumes, he attempted to apply the analytical program he had laid out in the first,
using what amounts to a quite traditional historical method. He cited selected,
mainly canonical texts, in support of the argument that, in classical Greece, the
regulation of the aphrodisia (a term that, he notes, means something like "sensual
pleasures," but cannot be translated precisely)9 was a matter of the health of the
body and mind rather than a matter of morality. In the Roman world, the link
between power over the self and power over others became attenuated, and a sense
of danger and imperfection came to characterize the ethics of sexual activity.
The volumes of The Historyof Sexualityfocusing specifically on the ancient world
met with mixed reviews. Many historians and other classical scholars have long been
critical of Foucault on specifics, arguing that he was no historian. Others have
responded that the power of the ideas is such that they are far more important than
the details.10It is of course true that one can be wrong about the sources and still
present ideas of such force that they are very fruitful in the hands of those more
prepared to deal accurately with the sources. But classicists have other grounds,
too, to criticize Foucault."1
In Rethinking Sexuality:Foucault and Classical Antiquity, edited by David H. J.
Larmour, Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter (1998), a group of classicists,
theoreticians, and philosophers discuss Foucault's views on classical antiquity.
Several of these articles are primarily concerned with the place of The History of
Sexualityin, and its contribution to the understanding of, Foucault's oeuvre. Others,
however, comment more directly on Foucault's contribution to the study Qfclassical
antiquity.
The most sustained critique of Foucault has come from feminist scholars, but
they have not all critiqued him in the same way. Three feminist essays in this book,
by Page duBois, Amy Richlin, and Lin Foxhall, illustrate the range of views. DuBois
points out that, by beginning a history of sexuality with the Greeks, Foucault
assumed "the inevitable primacy of masculine subject-formation, of women's
subjection and submission."12He accepted the interpretation of Greek culture that
made the history of the self the history of the male self, with women always

Plummer, ed. (Totowa, N.J., 1980). Halperin's more recent formulation is in "Forgetting Foucault,"
101-04, 108-10.
8 Michel Foucault, Th-eHistoryof Sexuality,Vol. 2: Th-eUses of Pleasure, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self,
Robert Hurley, trans. (New York, 1985-86).
9 Foucault, Uses of Pleasure, 35.
10David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towardsa Gay Hagiographiy(New York, 1995), 5-6. On 189-90 n.
9, Halperin lists some of the scholars he thinks have been inappropriatelyhostile to Foucault.
11See especially Richlin, "Zeus and Metis," for a feminist critique of Foucault.
12 Page duBois, "The Subject in Antiquity after Foucault," in Rethinikinlg Sexuality:Foutcalultand
ClassicalAntiquity,David H. J. Larmour, Paul Allen Miller, and Charles Platter, eds. (Princeton, N.J.,
1998), 85-103, quotation at 86.

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1254 Ruth Mazo Karras

subordinated. By focusing only on classical Athenian culture, rather than the lyric
culture of Sappho, he wrote women out of the history of sexuality. And yet duBois'
essay is far from an attack on Foucault. She draws from his work the revelation of
the defamiliarization of the past, the notion that the ancient world was radically
different, which allows a fresh view of Sappho, among other figures. The discipline
of classics, she claims, is fundamentally ahistorical, because "one employs the
philological method not to uncover the strangeness of antiquity but rather to dwell
in a culture assimilated to our own."'3 Foucault gives it back that strangeness.
An emphasis on the strangeness and otherness of the past is important to a
historian, who should not assume that people have always thought the same way as
she does. But she should not assume, either, that they thought differently. DuBois
critiques the position that would say of the ancient Greeks, "If, for example, we are
homophobic, so must they have been."'4 But it would be equally wrong to say, "We
are different from them, so if, for example, we are homophobic, they must not have
been." A healthy respect for the alterity of the past need not make us deny all
similarity or continuity.'5 Yes, the context in which women existed in antiquity was
quite different from that in late capitalist postmodernism, but this does not mean
that we must deny continuity when the evidence points to it and we have carefully
queried whether our own preconceptions cause us to interpret it that way.
Amy Richlin treats Foucault as a historian much more directly than duBois does.
For duBois, it is the theoretical force of his historicist stance that is important, not
his particular interpretations of the ancient world. For Richlin, it is what he has to
say about that world: not the details of particular texts but his historical method.
She notes that Foucault's antiquity lacks not only women but also Jews, Africans,
Egyptians, Semites, Northern Europeans, children, babies, poor people, and slaves.
The absence of women is dictated by his choice of genres and authors, "so that the
text replicates the omissions of the history it documents."'6 Richlin makes a great
deal of the use of "the Greeks" to mean specifically male (and elite) Greeks.
DuBois comments on this, too: both note that the "experience" discussed in
Foucault's "four great axes of experience" of the "person" include "the relation to
one's wife," although not all persons may have wives.'7 But for duBois, this does not
invalidate Foucault's important insights; for Richlin, it does. Foucault is dangerous
because he is such an icon and perpetuates such a traditional misogyny. This may
seem to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Certainly, feminist historians
have used the tactic, "I am only discussing here the experience of white middle-class
women, because that is the only group for which there is evidence." Why should
Foucault not do the same, as long as he notes that he is focusing on the experience
of men? Richlin points out that he often fails to note it; his disclaimers are not
sufficient to balance out the naturalization of the upper-class masculine. Discussing

13 DuBois, "Subject in Antiquity after Foucault," 93.


14 DuBois, "Subject in Antiquity after Foucault," 94.
15Thus, when duBois criticizes Amy Richlin for seeing a continuity of misogyny, calling this
ahistorical and an erasure of historical difference due to a failure to question the category "women"?
(89), she is tilting the balance too far in the direction of alterity.
16 Amy Richlin, "Foucault'sHistoryof Sexuality:A Useful Theory for Women?" in Larmour, Miller,
and Platter, RethinkingSexuality, 138-70, quotation at 139.
17 Richlin, "Foucault'sHistoryof Sexuality,"143; duBois, "Subject in Antiquity after Foucault," 187.

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Active/Passive,Acts/Passions 1255

women only as wives, discussing only male-male love under the rubric of "Erotics,"
and then packaging the whole as authoritative replicates a historical imbalance.
Richlin presents a number of useful directions for a history of ancient sexuality
that includes women. Lin Foxhall takes up a part of this agenda. She stresses the
different way in which women and men in ancient Greece experienced time and the
fact that women controlled men's access to "the three-generation time scale which
framed most of everyday life."'18She also discusses the importance to social
reproduction of women's ritual activity in which they displayed their sexuality to
each other in the absence of men. By dominating the oikos (household), men
attempted to monopolize civic life, but women controlled not just physical but also
social reproduction into the next generation. Further, she argues, women were not
just seen as passive sexually; although moikheia (adultery) was an offense against
the man who controlled the woman involved, the implication is that the woman had
taken control of her own sexuality, subverting her husband's control. By ignoring
the household context of feminine sexuality, Foxhall shows, Foucault has ignored a
big part of the picture. A number of the articles in Roman Sexualities, discussed
below, also work to place women at the center of a history of ancient sexuality.
Scholars of Greece, in particular, have tended to accept Foucault's theoretical
insights, if not his research on Athenian society. The prominent 1990 collection of
essays on the ancient Greek world, Before Sexuality, recognized the stronger and
weaker forms of social constructionism: the title, the editors explain, could mean
"before our sexuality,"suggesting merely that "sexual meanings and practices in the
ancient Greek world were constituted differently from our own," or it could
"suggest that the very category 'sexuality' is a specifically modern construction."19
One of the editors, John J. Winkler, went on elsewhere to stake out a moderate
social constructionist position, for example in a discussion of the kinaidos (Latin
cinaedus), often interpreted as a "passive homosexual": "The kinaidos, to be sure,
is not a 'homosexual' but neither is he just an ordinary guy who now and then
decided to commit a kinaidic act. The conception of a kinaidos was of a man socially
deviant in his entire being."20It is, however, the view that sexuality and sexual
identity did not exist in the ancient (or medieval, or early modern, or non-Western)
world that has gained currency among non-classicists.21
Both moderate and strong social constructionists have tended to agree that
gender roles-masculine or feminine, active or passive-were more important than
object choice in the ancient world, although they disagree on whether this means
that the Greeks and Romans had sexualities very different from ours or that their
classifications were based on gender roles ratherthan (not as a part of) sexuality.
Key to the distinction of gender roles was the concept that men are active and
women passive, or that men are penetrators and women penetrated.22Thus anyone
18 Lin Foxhall, "Pandora Unbound: A Feminist Critique of Foucault's Histoty of Sexuality," in

Larmour, Miller, and Platter, RethinkingSexuality, 122-37, quotation at 126.


19 "Introduction," in Before Sexuality: The Constructionof Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek
World,David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma Zeitlin, eds. (Princeton, N.J., 1990), 5.
20 John J. Winkler, The Constraintsof Desire: TheAnthropologyof Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece

(New York, 1990), 45. See now Halperin's discussion of the kinaidos in "ForgettingFoucault," 100-04.
21 See, for example, Martha Nussbaum, "Therapeutic Arguments and Structures of Desire,"

differences:A Journal of Feminist CulturalStudies 2 (1990): 46-66, esp. 49.


22 Eva Keuls, The Reign of the Phalluts:Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens (Berkeley, Calif., 1985), is a

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1256 Ruth Mazo Karras

who is penetrated (or is in other ways passive) is gendered feminine, and anyone
who penetrates is masculine. For the Romans, to penetrate other men could be a
sign of masculinity (hence Valerius Asiaticus's taunt, "Question your sons, Suillius,
they'll say that I'm a man," whereas a modern taunter might be more likely to say,
"Ask your mother").23Women who penetrate (with dildos or large clitorises) and
men who are penetrated are seen not primarily as sexual deviants but as gender
transgressors. The primary example of such a deviant man is the kinaidos or
cinaedus, but the exact meaning of these terms and the exact way in which such a
person deviated from accepted gender roles is the subject of some dispute.
This way of understanding sex as something someone does to someone else seems
fairly common in ancient Mediterranean culture.24Although this is a long way from
modern understandings of homosexuality as related to the gender of object choice,
not the gender of act performed, the idea that it is only the passive man or active
woman who is perverted, not the man who penetrates another man or the woman
who is penetrated by another woman, certainly survived well into this century.25
This governing paradigm of ancient sexuality may be very different from the
scholarly construction of sexuality today but not so far from a view widely held
among the North American public, that gay men are effeminate and lesbians
masculine.
The fact that there is more than one way of understanding homosexual behavior
in contemporary culture should remind us that the ancients did not have a unitary
view of it, either. Attitudes varied from archaic to classical Greece to Rome, and
varied, too, within a given polis, as David Cohen stresses for Athens, with its
internally contradictory expressions.26 T. K. Hubbard has argued recently, as
Kenneth Dover did in 1978, that same-sex relations were far more acceptable
among elites than among the mass of the Athenian people and that the latter

strong, perhaps too strong, statement of the centrality of this phallic view not only to ancient sexuality
but to all of Athenian culture.
23 Tacitus, Annales 11: 2, John Jackson, ed., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), 250.
24 Halperin recently complained that Bernadette Brooten, in the book under review here, Love

betweenWomen,failed to attribute the idea to him, Winkler, or Foucault; she, however, replied that she
had made this argument earlier. "The GLQ Forum: Lesbian Historiographybefore the Name?" GLQ:
A Joumnalof Lesbian and Gay Studies 4 (1998): 560 and 627 n. 1. This point is so pervasive in the
literature that it would seem to be impossible to attribute it to a single author. Richlin, "Zeus and
Metis," 172-73, also demonstrates that feminist scholars made this point before the publication of
Halperin's and Winkler's major books in 1990.
25 George Chauncey, Jr., Gay New York: Gende;; Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male

World,1890-1940 (New York, 1994), 119, suggests that this idea that the active partner was "normal"
was characteristicof working-classculture in the 1920s. See also Chauncey, "ChristianBrotherhood or
Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World
War I Era," in Hidden from History:Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, Martin Bauml Duberman,
Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey,Jr., eds. (New York, 1989), 294-317. The idea that the passive
partner in a female same-sex relationship was not a lesbian was certainly characteristic of the
relationships depicted in Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (New York, 1990); see Elizabeth
LapovskyKennedy and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather,Slippersof Gold: The Historyof a Lesbian
Community (New York, 1993), 323-71, on the persistence of the "gender-inversion" model in
working-class Buffalo in the 1940s and 1950s. Some fems considered only the butches to be lesbians.
26 David Cohen, Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens
(Cambridge, 1991), 171-202.

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Active/Passive,Acts/Passions 1257

condemned both the active and the passive partner.27He argues that the Greeks did
categorize by gender of object choice rather than role. Such a view is not
incompatible with a moderate idea of the social construction of sexuality, since the
argument is made on the basis of Greek texts and the categories that emerge from
them, rather than on the imposition of modern categories.
The mainstream or majority view of a given culture, whether that of today or
antiquity, is created in large part by a dominant masculine discourse. Did everyone
in ancient Greece or Rome understand sex as something that a penetrator does to
a penetrated, and if so, did those who were penetrated still see themselves as active
participants? Answering these questions requires examining a wide range of texts,
beyond the canonical, in innovative ways. In order to do so, a historian must
understand something about how a given text helped construct the mental world of
its contemporaries: who read it, and how did they understand it? Did it represent
a dominant or subversive point of view?

BRUCE THORNTON'S Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality (1997) is critical of
much recent work on the history of sexuality, which he dismisses with terms like
"fashionable." He renounces the attempt to answer these questions: "This book,
then, is not about what the Greeks 'really' thought or felt or did about sex. It is
about what the literary remains from 700-100 B.C. say about sex." Many historians,
however, retain a belief that texts constitute, if only in an indirect way, evidence
about the contexts that they were created by or helped to create. A narrow focus on
the texts also risks losing sight of how those who did not write survivingtexts might
have felt and lived. Thornton, to judge from his dismissal of attempts to do so, does
not think that studying the mentalities of non-elites through the use of "so-called
nonprivileged data" is a worthwhile or possible project.28To dismiss the whole field
of social history because everyday attitudes are not encapsulated in canonical texts
is just as reductive as dismissing canonical texts because they were written by dead
white European males.
Thornton positions his book as a brave and honest voice crying in the wilderness
of cultural-theorycant. This rhetorical move allows him to ignore the questions that
social constructionism raises. Thus he writes of Greek attitudes toward "homosex-
uality" without asking whether the behaviors and identities to which he refers are
really the same or fundamentally different from modern "homosexuality."He notes
that "a Greek would not categorize as 'homosexual' a man who has penetrated
another," but then goes on to discuss Aristotle referring to "homosexuals,"when in
fact, as his own discussion shows, it is not a category based on object choice but the
taking of pleasure in passivity that Aristotle criticizes.29 Thornton does raise
substantive questions about whether pederasty was relatively unproblematic to the
Greeks, as Halperin, Winkler, and Dover would have it.30 He argues that many texts

27 T. K. Hubbard, "Popular Perceptions of Elite Homosexuality in Classical Athens," Anion, 3d ser.,

6 (1998): 48-78; Dover, GreekHomosexuality,148-51.


28 Bruce J. Thornton, Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality(Boulder, Colo., 1997), xii.
29 Thornton, Eros, 194.
30 Thornton, Eros, 193-202; Cohen, Law, Sexuality,and Society, 171-202.

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1258 Ruth Mazo Karras

speak of boys and women in the same ways, indicating that, for male citizens, sex
with women was the norm, and pederasty followed a "heterosexual paradigm,"but
this could as easily be taken as evidence that gender roles (penetrator/penetrated),
not object choice, were what mattered.31His discussion of the kinaidos is not in
deep disagreement with Winkler's, at least in terms of who the Greeks thought the
kinaidos was.32 Indeed, he also shares with social constructionists the fundamental
premise of the alterity of the Greeks: unlike our contemporaries, according to
Thornton, the Greeks viewed eros as a volatile, chaotic, dangerous, and uncontrol-
lable force, inextricably linked to violence. He suggests that we would do well to
learn from the Greeks in this regard and follow the lead of Camille Paglia, who
alone has recognized that it is just as dangerous a force today.33
James Davidson, in Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of
ClassicalAthens (1998), also contests the current orthodoxy about the active-passive
dichotomy, in an engaged and engaging manner. He takes a moderate construc-
tionist position, arguing that appetites exist in all societies; they are shaped by
"historical, social, economic, cultural, intellectual, ideological, etc." contexts but
are not created by them.34The book, as its title implies, is about more than sex; it
is about the desires generally, or at least men's desire.35Based on his evidence, a
case could be made that Greek men defined their identity not by sexual desires but
by their eating habits.36He describes classical Athenian culture as one where the
control of one's desires and the fight against passion were of crucial importance-a
view that, despite Davidson's renunciation of Foucault, echoes the argument of the
latter in The Uses of Pleasure. The passions on which he focuses are the love of fish
and the love of men for courtesans. As in the study of same-sex desires among men,
women's desires have only a minor role to play here, but in his discussion of
distinctions among those women often lumped together as "prostitutes," he does
provide a useful discussion of the nature of their experience and agency. He
attempts to recover the highly cultured courtesan, the hetaera, as an independent
and desiring woman, different from the pornai or common whores, and he
challenges the view that women fell into only two categories, the secluded, private
wife or the public prostitute.
Davidson's focus on passion leads him to attack the widely held view that it was
31 Thornton, Eros, 194.
32 John J. Winkler, "Laying Down the Law: The Oversight of Men's Sexual Behavior in Classical
Athens," in Halperin, Winkler, and Zeitlin, Before Sexuality,171-209. This similarity comes despite his
praise of Camille Paglia for her "brutal demolition" of Winkler. The first half of the article he cites,
Paglia, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," Arion, 3d ser., 1
(Spring 1991): 139-212, is indeed structured as a demolition of Halperin's and Winkler's work, though
not all will share Thornton's view of its success; the second is an ad hominem et feminam diatribe
against contemporary academia.
33 Thornton, Eros, 218.
34 James Davidson, Colirtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (New
York, 1998), 312.
35 When Davidson notes with disapproval (xxiii) that "Foucault's study of Greek sexuality has very
little on women at all and gives the impression that the Greeks were very much more interested in
boys," he clearly means women as partners for men, since it is Greek men who may or may not have
been more interested in boys.
36 Ironically, Halperin has used the counterfactual example of identities based on eating habits as an
analogy to explain his view of social construction: "Sex before Sexuality:Pederasty, Politics, and Power
in Classical Athens," in Duberman, Vicinus, and Chauncey, Hidden from History, 41-42.

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Active/Passive,Acts/Passions 1259

passivity and effeminacy that made the kinaidoi (and the similar katapugones) such
figures of opprobrium.37It was not, he argues, because they abdicated the masculine
role of penetrator that they were considered shameful but rather because they were
unrestrained in their desires. Indeed, he claims, the evidence rarely speaks of their
being penetrated. Their status had nothing to do with physical integrity but was a
function of self-control. Yet the kinaidos/katapugon clearly was understood as
someone who enjoyed being anally penetrated, whether or not this was the core of
his identity. Even if it were the immoderacy of his desire, rather than his passive
role, that was important, he was still fundamentally a gender transgressor, feminine
in that very immoderacy. The kinaidos comes in for far more censure than a man
with an immoderate desire to penetrate, although the latter also can meet with
disapproval.
Ultimately, Davidson does not undercut the characterization of the Athenian
view of sex as something someone does to someone else, a hierarchical act, rather
than something two people do together. He argues that those who support the
"power-penetration"theory in which the kinaidos is dominated and emasculated by
being penetrated are actually applying not a Greek but a Victorian view. Given
these attitudes, which have developed over a long Western tradition, "It is small
wonder that classicists have interpreted rear-entrypenetration in the classical world
in terms of aggression and power. But in classical Athens the penetrated were not
seen as the inert objects of someone else's gratification. Women certainly did not
lie back (or bend forwards) and wait for things to be done to them ... Even passive
sodomites are shown joining in at every level ... The kinaidos/katapugonis not a
sexual pathic, humiliated and made effeminate by repeated domination, he is a
nymphomaniac, full of womanish desire, who dresses up to attract men and has sex
at the drop of a hat."38Here, Davidson misinterprets the claim some scholars make
when they speak of sexual passivity. The one who is penetrated does not have to be
inert or apathetic in order for intercourse to be understood as one person doing
something to someone else. Indeed, as Halperin has recently stressed, what
distinguishes the kinaidos is not that he is penetrated but that he desires to be
penetrated.39 The passivity is anatomical rather than affective. To say that
historians of sexuality have denied that women or kinaidoi took pleasure in sex is to
misinterpret the use of the term "passive." Davidson's own formulation of the
kinaidos as "full of womanish desire" acknowledges the nature of the gender
transgression involved.

ALTHOUGH DAVIDSON CLAIMS THAT in classical Athens sexuality was not character-
ized by power and domination, he contrasts it with other societies where it was,
including ancient Rome.40A volume edited by Judith Hallett and Marilyn Skinner,

37 Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes, 167-82. There is some dispute about the meaning of
"katapugon";Davison argues that it refers not just to a passive male but to a lascivious person.
38 Davidson, Courtesansand Fishcakes, 179.
39 David Halperin, in "GLQ Forum: Lesbian Historiography before the Name?" 568.
40 Davidson, Courtesansand Fishcakes, 169.

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1260 Ruth Mazo Karras

Roman Sexualities(1997), certainly supports the Roman end of that contrast.41The


articles in the book do not agree on all points, but several important themes
emerge: the importance of the active/passive dichotomy in Roman culture; the
critical importance of sexuality to Roman masculinity;and the existence of different
discourses, including women's discourses about their own sexualities.
There is a tendency among historians to lump sexuality together with the study of
women and gender; this is in part because of the way men in the historical periods
in question treated women as controlled by their sexualities, but it has the
pernicious effect of pushing us and our students to think of women as sexual beings
(or sexual objects) first and foremost, to conflate the study of homosexuality with
the study of women, and to erase male heterosexuality as a subject of study. A
number of articles in this volume show the importance of sexuality to masculine
identity regardless of what in the modern era would be called sexual orientation.
Holt Parker and Anthony Corbeill's articles both focus on the way the active/
passive distinction affected ideas about masculinity. Parker constructs a chart to
show how the Romans characterized various sexual acts, but his discussion of
cunnilingus (equating it with a man's penetration by a woman) pushes the idea of
a sexual "system"beyond the evidence.42He also omits the active woman from the
grid intended to summarize the possibilities for sexualities as the Romans saw them.
Parker's conclusion, "Tacitus in Ohio," contains a wonderfully lucid social con-
structionist explanation of the difference between Roman sexual categories and
contemporary North American ones. Parker uses the conceit of imagining Tacitus's
field work in the United States to point out how little we know of how those
Romans vilified as cinaedi would have felt about it, or behaved.43 One could, of
course, say the same about women, whose sexuality is depicted mainly in hostile
sources.
Most of what survives about cinaedi is the vilification, which shows us how
intensely at least one segment of Roman society equated masculinity with pene-
trative sexual behavior. Corbeill's article is particularly enlightening on this point.
Criticism of banquets as a Greek or Asian import was closely tied to the invective
against submissive sexuality.44Some scholars have questioned whether the passive
male or cinaedus actually existed as a recognized type, characterized by what
Foucault called "a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul" rather
than as a literary construct based on men who merely engaged in specific acts.45
Both Parker and Corbeill, following on important work by Maud Gleason and Amy
Richlin, suggest that cinaedi did exist.46 The question Parker raises, although

41 So does Amy Richlin, The Gardenof Priapuls:Sexualityand Aggressionin Roman Humor, rev. edn.
(New York, 1992), which Davidson does not cite on this point.
42 Holt Parker, "The Teratogenic Grid," in Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds., Roman
Sexualities (Princeton, N.J., 1997), 47-65, 51.
43 Parker, "Teratogenic Grid," 62-63.
44 Anthony Corbeill, "Dining Deviants in Roman Political Invective," in Hallett and Skinner,Roman
Sexualities,99-128.
45 Foucault, Histoiy of Sexuality,1: 43.
46 Maud Gleason, "The Semiotics of Gender: Physiognomy and Self-Fashioning in the Second
Century C.E.," in Halperin, Winkler, and Zeitlin, Before Sexuality, 399-415, now incorporated in
Gleason, McakingMen: Sophists and Self-Presentationin Ancient Rome (Princeton, N.J., 1995), 55-81;
Amy Richlin, "Not before Homosexuality:The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against

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Corbeill does not, is how the individual so identified felt about his own identity.
Others may have seen inner characteristics expressed through outward behavior,
but did the cinaedi? Did the availability of a literary type for use in self-fashioning
mean that this was really a sexual identity? If the sources do not exist that could tell
us about the subjectivity of the cinaedus, some modern historians would have us
take this as evidence that there was no such subjectivity or sexual identity. Even
leaving aside the vicissitudes of survival of source material, however, if people did
not write about certain types of feelings in the Roman period as they do today-if
it was a less confessional age-does that mean that they did not have those feelings?
It would be a mistake to assume that because our contemporaries tend to identify
themselves by their sexualities, the Romans did, too; but equally it would be a
mistake to assume that the Romans could not have.
If we do not know how those labeled cinaedi viewed themselves, we know more
about the mainstream Roman elite's fear of being so labeled. Marilyn Skinner, in
an article originally published in 1993, points out that masculinity in ancient Rome
was a very fragile condition but necessary for public manifestations of rank and
authority.47It was not achieved simply by being born male and growing up; it
required constant vigilance to avoid being feminized by a loss of social status, a loss
of control over one's family and slaves, or inappropriate sexual behavior. Jonathan
Walters discusses the importance of impenetrability to Roman concepts of man-
hood. Not all adult males were impenetrable, and not all were considered real men
(viri). To be the passive partner in a sexual relation was muliebriapati, "to have a
woman's experience," but to be penetrated was not just the experience of a woman
but also that of a slave or freedman. He discusses why the corporal punishment of
a slave, but not that of a free child or the penetration of a soldier by a sword, was
equivalent to sexual penetration.48
Walters's argument raises a problem common to historians of gender who refer
to biological females being constructed as masculine, and vice versa, or of gender
being constituted by performance.49This, however, is a use of language not taken
literally outside the academy, and perhaps too literally within it. Ask a hundred
people off the street (either in ancient Rome, the modern United States, or
anywhere else) to explain their concept of masculinity, and you will get a wide
variety of answers. Ask them instead to define the term "man" and you will get a
small range of variation. On one level, no matter how devoutly we believe that real
men don't eat quiche, cry, or engage in violence against women, we still use the
term "man" in common parlance to mean an adult male human. An adult male in
ancient Rome who was penetrated might become an object of scorn, and might be
castigated as unmanly or not really a man, but there would be no question that laws
or medical texts that applied to viri applied to him. His gender transformation is

Love between Men," Journal of the Histoty of Sexuality3 (1993): 523-73; Parker, "Teratogenic Grid,"
60-62; Corbeill, "Dining Deviants," 112-17.
4 Marilyn B. Skinner, "Ego mulier: The Construction of Male Sexuality in Catullus," in Hallett and
Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 129-50.
48 Jonathan Walters, "Invading the Body: Manliness and Impenetrability in Roman Thought," in
Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities,29-43.
49 On gender as performance, see Judith Butler, Gender Trouible: Feminism and the Sutbversionof
Identity (New York, 1990), 135-41.

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1262 Ruth Mazo Karras

metaphoric or symbolic, but no one thinks that having a woman's experience has
"really"made him a woman.
About the sexual subjectivity of biological females, like that of feminized males,
surviving texts reveal relatively little. Thus Catharine Edwards writes about
prostitution without any consideration of how the prostitutes may have felt about
their infamy.50Sandra Joshel, writing about a woman of the elite, Messalina, who
is far better documented than women generally, still does not attempt to discover
the "real"Messalina's experience; she is "concerned with the writing of history, not
with history as a set of events."'51Even the study of female homoeroticism focuses
on men's constructions of women's sexuality. Pamela Gordon argues that Ovid's
Sappho is masculinized and "simply acts out a charade of male sexuality." She
suggests that we "imagine the masculinized lesbians of the Roman texts not as
monsters or fools (as their creators intended), but as dauntless rebels."52 The
modern reader may, despite the hostility of these authors to women, be able to infer
from them something of how the women may have seen themselves and their
sexualities.
Amy Richlin draws on "a jumble of encyclopedias and agriculturalhandbooks" to
more nearly approach women's sexual experience. Her title, "Pliny's Brassiere,"
refers to Pliny's use of a female undergarment tied around his head to relieve
headaches; this brings her to the "medicinal uses of the female human body," which
in turn tell us something about women's sexualities.53Women used various forms of
herbal medicine and sympathetic magic to control (mainly to promote) their own
fertility.
Judith Hallett's "Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in
Latin Literature," originally published in 1989 but still important enough to fully
warrant its reprinting in the Hallett and Skinner volume, also attempts to
disentangle women's actual sexual lives from masculine literary constructions of
them. Hallett notes that Roman writers discuss tribades (women who engaged in sex
with each other) as something from the remote Greek past, not as part of their own
contemporary society, and also masculinize them, denying their resemblance to
normal Roman women. They do so despite evidence in their own writings that they
knew full well that women could give each other pleasure without penetration. "But
for Roman males who wrote about tribadism, it was evidently easier to deny the
actual and avow the unlikely than to abandon assumptions about how, according to
biological nature and Roman culture, women ought to behave."54
Although Hallett argues that same-sex female erotic behavior existed and that
Roman writers who did not acknowledge its existence except as a monstrosity were
engaging in deliberate self-deception, she is not able in the space of an article to
discuss in detail that experience. A major and important attempt to do so is
50 Catharine Edwards, "Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient
Rome," in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 66-95.
51 Sandra Joshel, "Female Desire and the Discourse of Empire: Tacitus's Messalina," in Hallett and
Skinner, Roman Sexualities,221-54, quotation at 222.
52Pamela Gordon, "The Lover's Voice in Heroides 15: Or, Why Is Sappho a Man?" in Hallett and
Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 274-91, quotations at 283, 288.
53 Amy Richlin, "Pliny's Brassiere," in Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities, 197-220, see 200.
54 Judith P. Hallett, "Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Reality in Latin Literature," in
Hallett and Skinner, Roman Sexualities,255-73, quotation at 268.

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Bernadette Brooten's Love between Wonmen: Early ChristianResponses to Fenmale


Homoeroticism (1996). The second part of Brooten's book, and that which will be
of most interest in the contemporary debate about the morality of homosexuality,
focuses on a biblical text, Romans 1: 18-32. Brooten's discussion of this text will be
disconcerting to many Christians: to members of the religious right, because she
shows that Paul's homophobic attitudes were reflections of his time (and therefore,
although she does not say this explicitly, not to be taken as eternal truths), and to
those on the religious left who would like to explain or interpret away Paul's
apparent homophobia, because she shows that he meant it. Historically speaking,
however, her argument makes a great deal of sense: Paul was not particularly
innovative in either a progressive or reactionary way but rather was part of a
complex web of texts on homoeroticism that circulated in the Hellenistic Mediter-
ranean.
While Brooten has made an extremely important contribution to the study of
early Christian attitudes toward women's sexualities, our concern here is with the
first half of the book, in which she sets the context for her exegesis of Paul. In
meticulous detail, she gives the evidence for female homoerotic relationships in the
Roman world and comes as close as is possible to how women themselves
experienced those relationships. She notes that "[t]he sources bear witness to male
constructions of female homoeroticism, rather than to lesbians' perceptions of
themselves," but she goes as far as she can in reasoning from those constructions to
the experience.55 Like other scholars, she points to the importance of the
active/passive distinction in Roman mentalities: men were supposed to be active,
women passive, and to transgress these roles was unnatural. Yet there is evidence
that women who loved other women did not necessarily accept these attitudes.
Brooten also questions the strong social constructionist view that there can have
been no sexual identities, orientations, or sexualities in the ancient world: "I present
non-Christian material in this book for a category of persons viewed in antiquity as
having a long-term or even lifelong homoerotic orientation," a category that
included both men and women.56
Some of the evidence Brooten presents, though sketchy, casts doubt on the
traditional Roman view described by Hallett that female homoerotic practices
involved penetration in imitation of men. For example, a wall painting from
Pompeii depicts, among other things, one woman performing cunnilingus on
another, who fellates a man. Although this can hardly be taken as typical of Roman
sexual practices, it is noteworthy that the female same-sex practice depicted is not
phallic.57
The four chapters of the first section of the book focus on four types of sources.
Greek erotic spells from Egypt actually state the names of women who commis-
sioned the spells and the women they loved. Brooten cautions that "the individual

55Bernadette J. Brooten, Love between Women:Early ChristianResponses to Female Homoeroticisn


(Chicago, 1996), 25.
56 Brooten, Love betweenWomen,9. A number of scholars have questioned Brooten's conclusions on
this point, charging that she applies a modern concept of egalitarian lesbian relationships that is not
present in the ancient sources; for these and other critiques, and Brooten's response, see "GLQ Forum:
Lesbian Historiography before the Name?"
57 Brooten, Love between Women, 60.

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1264 Ruth Mazo Karras

women probably did not compose their own spells. Rather, these spells contain
highly formulaic language that reveals more about cultural ideology than about
individual women's lives."58Very true; but it still reveals more about individual
women's lives than other sources do, namely that real, non-elite women, not literary
fictions, did feel strongly enough about other women to commission these spells,
and the cultural atmosphere was such that they were able to go public in doing so.
That Brooten takes forty pages to present and analyze three brief spells indicates
something about the level of detail in this book; she has taken pains to preempt the
criticisms of specialists.
The chapter on astrological texts does not get as close to the lives of actual
women, but it does present female homoeroticism as among the range of sexual
possibilities the astrologers recognized, although they considered it an exception to
the norm since it called for women to be active rather than passive. By explaining
the astrological reasons for women's desire to have sex with other women (and also
to have sex with many men), these texts show that it was a recognized part of
everyday life, not just something literary authors wanted to present as an example
of Greek perversion.
In her chapter on medical texts, Brooten suggests that Foucault's placing of the
medicalization of homosexuality in the nineteenth century was about 1,700 years
too late. "The patient suffering from such a disease [certain forms of same-sex
desire] did have an identity, apparently a lifelong one, characterized by behavior
considered unnatural (i.e., appropriate for the opposite sex), unless treatment
effected a cure."59This treatment might include clitoridectomy, and Brooten raises
the unanswered question of "at whose request such brutal surgery took place"-
husband? brothel owner? The medical texts accept the view that female homoerot-
icism requires penetration.
Finally, the literature of dream interpretation tells us something of the generally
accepted meanings of sexual activity.Artemidorus Daldianus (fl. second century CE)
placed woman-woman intercourse in his category of dreams about unnatural sexual
acts and distinguished between dreams of being the active and passive partner.
Brooten suggests that these acts were perceived as unnatural because they failed to
recreate patterns of social dominance; they perpetuated the penetrator/penetrated
dichotomy, without that dichotomy corresponding to positions in the social
hierarchy, as it was usually assumed to do.

THE MOVE BY FEMINIST AND OTHER SCHOLARS, Brooten among them, to recover
people's experiences of what we might tendentiously call their own sexualities goes
against Foucault's argument that what is important to study is sexuality, which is a
discursive phenomenon, rather than sex, which is unreal and ahistorical. The
important contribution of much of this recent work is that it does both: it attempts
to reconstruct lived experience while recognizing the substantial methodological

58Brooten, Love between Women, 73.


59Brooten, Love between Women, 144.

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Active/Passive, Acts/Passions 1265

and theoretical problems that stand in the way of that reconstruction. It analyzes
both the discourse and its potential relation to practice.
The theoretical sophistication that the study of sexualities in ancient Greece and
Rome has acquired makes a familiarity with this field necessary to anyone who
studies or teaches the history of sexuality in other times or places. These new works
teach us that it is possible to recover some aspects of women's sexualities even from
male-dominated and male-documented cultures, that multiple and contradictory
discourses can exist in one society, and that continuities as well as discontinuities
are historical. They reveal some broad differences between Athenian and Roman
sexual norms, but the differences and contradictions within each culture stand out
more than the contrasts. We may never reach agreement on the exact meaning of
figures like the kinaidos/cinaedus for ancient societies, but this should be no
surprise. There is no agreement on the nature of gay and lesbian identities today,
even among gay men and lesbians. When all we have are texts that were, after all,
not composed in order to answer the questions we would like to ask, the discourse
may seem more unified, but it is entirely possible that opinions among the ancient
Greeks and Romans about sexuality were as varied and as vehement as the opinions
of scholars today.

Ruth Mazo Karras is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. She


is author of Common Women:Prostitutionand Sexualityin MedievalEngland
(1996) and other works dealing with gender and sexuality in medieval Europe,
as well as Slaveryand Society in MedievalScandinavia(1988). Her current
research project examines competing constructions of masculinity in the later
Middle Ages. In addition to medieval history, Karras teaches courses in the
history of sexuality, so her interest in ancient sexualities grows out of her
teaching.

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