In this paper, I examine the process of representation in the funerary relief of Fonteia Helena and Fonteia Eleusis, two freedwomen commemorated in Augustan Rome (CIL 6.18524). I argue that these women are representing themselves as married to each other, and in doing so construct an identity for themselves using the cultural tools available to them. I then show how this relationship has been erased in both antiquity and the present. Finally, I explain how this relief can serve as a model in reading same-sex relationships back into a text where only the erasure has survived, using an epigram of Martial that mocks a tribas.
I begin by arguing that Helena and Eleusis represent themselves as married, using the dextrarum iunctio that is a typical indicator of married couples (Davies 1985; Treggiari 1991; Hersch 2010). In doing so I follow a precedent (Brooten 1996, Auanger 2002, Keegan 2003), but I go further in emphasizing why they might have chosen this representation. Roman women in homosexual relationships could have used a signifier like this to describe their relationship in a society that did not have a language for it. As Anna Clark has discussed in her analysis of the Victorian lesbian Anne Lister, these women are using the cultural representations available to them to construct their sexual identities (1996). This interpretation also questions Michel Foucault’s theory that antiquity was without homosexual identities (1985).
Moreover, this relief is useful as an example of how lesbian history is erased, in that the process of erasure itself is visible. The first took place in antiquity, when the face on the left was re-cut into a man's face. The controversy over this change has perpetuated the erasure: it has been argued that the relief must have been re-cut from a man to a woman, since the reverse is too unlikely (Stupperich 1983, followed by Williams 2012). Similarly, scholars have tried to argue that although the relationship is between two women using the symbols of marriage, it is not homosexual (Walker 1981, Davies 1985, Williams 2012). The catalogue of the British Museum, where the relief is located, presents both sides of the argument, but minimizes and even misrepresents the extent to which the relationship has been interpreted as homosexual (as of April 2015). It is tempting to say that it does not matter whether the relationship between these women was a homosexual one or not. But, as Sheila Jeffreys argues, leaving the nature of their relationship ambiguous further obscures lesbian history (1996).
Lastly, I will use this relief as a model for how to reconstruct real women where only the normative version of them survives. Martial’s epigram about the tribas Bassa (1.90), for instance, describes a similar process of erasure. Like Helena and Eleusis, the only clue about her sexuality is the exclusivity of her relationships with women. Martial originally interprets this heteronormatively: Bassa must, like Lucretia, be especially faithful to her husband. This interpretation anticipates the assumptions made by some scholars about Helena and Eleusis’s relationship, and uses the cherchez l’homme tactic that Lillian Faderman exposes in biographies of pre-twentieth century lesbians (1979).
Bassa was probably not a real person: she appears in other epigrams as a figure of mockery for other qualities (4.4, 61, 87; 5.45; 6.69), and turning a generic Lucretia into a tribas has obvious humorous potential for a male Roman audience. Judith Hallett has discussed the ways in which Martial distances Bassa from women of contemporary Rome (1997). But if people like the Bassa of 1.90 did exist, this poem shows what might have happened to them: they are hidden by heteronormative assumptions that obscure women’s lived experiences. Using the Helena and Eleusis relief, which has both a real relationship between women and its subsequent distortion, we can begin to reconstruct other women like them from places where only the echo survives.
Identity and Ethnicity