Scholarship on Roman women who loved women (WLW) often focuses on the figure of the tribad, usually defined as a masculinized woman who desires to penetrate. Judith Hallett (1997) groups all woman-woman sex under this umbrella, arguing that the Romans consistently characterize women who have sex with women as literally phallic. However, Sandra Boehringer (2007) makes two important modifications to this model: women who have sex with women are not always, if ever, imagined as literally phallic, and not all such women can be considered tribads. Building on and modifying Boehringer’s analysis, this paper examines two separate models for WLW that appear in Martial: the tribad Philaenis, who is masculinized and desires topenetrate, and the “lesbian” Bassa, who is feminized and desires women.
Philaenis is called “the tribad of tribads” (7.70.1: tribadum tribas). The verbs used of her sexual acts are all verbs that are elsewhere used of the penetrator’s role in sex: she fucks her girlfriend (7.70.2, futuis), anally penetrates boys (7.67.1, pedicat), and “pounds” eleven girls a day (7.67.3,dolat). Philaenis does not solely desire women, but has sex with women and boys, both of whom are acceptable objects of penetration for men in the Roman sex-gender system. She does this, Martial implies, because she desires to be a man (7.67.14-17). Contrary to Boehringer, I believe that the tribad Philaenis must be considered separately from the other Philaenis poems of Martial, and that “anti-eroticism” is not her main feature. I place the emphasis on her sexual habits and argue that Philaenis is a tribad because she has sex “like a man.”
Bassa represents a very different model. Previous scholarship has argued that Bassa is masculinized and phallic (cf. Brooten 1996, Hallet 1997, Howell 1980, Parker 1997), but this is a misinterpretation caused by our expectation that Bassa must be like Philaenis (cf. Boehringer 2007). First, unlike Philaenis, Bassa has sex by “joining twin cunts together” (1.90.7: geminos audes committere cunnos). Bassa does not use an enlarged clitoris or dildo here; the genitalia are“twins,” neither of them phallic (Boehringer 2007). Second, Bassa is depicted as someone with only female partners. She stays away from mares (1.90.1), moechi (1.90.2), and viri (1.90.4 and 10), and surrounds herself only with her own sex (1.90.4). Her desire is characterized not as the desire to penetrate, but as the desire for women to the exclusion of men. This approaches our notion of lesbian desire. Finally, and most controversially, I will argue that Bassa is not masculinized in this poem, nor is she of an uncertain sex as Boehringer argues, but rather her femininity is emphasized. Martial does call Bassa a fututor, a (masculine) fucker (1.90.6), but I argue that this word refers here to the desire for vaginal sex. Martial uses the masculine term not to call Bassa a man, but rather because the feminine form, fututrix, usually refers to a woman who fucks a penis (Adams 1982; Kamen and Levin-Richardson 2015). Counterintuitively, fututrix would imply the presence of a penis more than does fututor. Instead, throughout the poem, the narrator emphasizes Bassa’s femininity and the femininity of the company she keeps; it is the same-sex nature of Bassa’s relationships that disturbs the narrator.
In the end, both of these models come back to men: Philaenis wants to be a man; Bassa rejects men. Perhaps we are nowhere nearer to real WLW, but this talk supports the idea that we need to broaden our expectations for how WLW were thought about—and how they might have thought about themselves—in antiquity.
Lesbianism Before Sexuality