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The figure of the tribas in literature under the Roman empire has often been understood as an extremely negative stereotype, developed and directed primarily against female homoeroticism (Hallett [1989=] 1997; Brooten 1996; Skinner 2005; Boehringer 2021), or women who engaged in active, penetrative sexual acts with persons of any sex (Ormand 2005).

Tribas has not yet, however, been interpreted as partly functioning as a transphobic label, inasmuch as we can understand trans* not in its narrow sense of transgender, but as Snorton (2017: 5-7) has articulated it, in terms of it being a transitive relation, ephemeral and defying binaristic logics. In this sense, I propose that the stereotype of the tribas goes beyond—but does not preclude—the stereotyping of “women” (as masculine penetrators or same-sex lovers), to target those individuals who were also attributed with thinking they were men in a variety of ways. Just as slurs and labels have long been applied indiscriminately to trans*, queer, or non-gender conforming people—for instance “lesbian” was once regularly applied to trans* men (Skidmore 2015)—I suggest that tribas functions in a similar way. In the few instances where tribas does appear, comparison to other possible textual representations of trans* men, namely Lucian’s (Dial. Mer. 5) Megillos, can reveal the ways in which *trans men might be reclaimed in the very insult of “tribadism” (cf. Watson 2021).

My re-examination of the evidence for the tribas begins with the killing of two so-called tribades, in flagrante delicto, filtered third-hand to Seneca the Elder (Controv. 1.2.3). Importantly, it is a Roman (Seneca or Scaurus) who seems to reinscribe the offenders in this incident as tribades; but the earlier (Greek) source unequivocally says the husband identified the penetrative offender as a “man”, whose genitalia even needed to be inspected in terms of being “from birth or stitched on”. Comparison with Lucian’s Megillos, who is not called a tribas (cf. Bissa 2013), but is similarly presented as wanting to be seen as a man, shows that even in a hostile Greek context, the label of tribas did not have to be invoked. Moreover, Martial’s arch-tribas Philaenis reveals possible fragments of a trans* representation. Martial notes that Philaenis “rightly (recte) calls the girl you fuck your girlfriend” (7.70), while Megillos describes Demonassa as his “wife”, so that in each case it is not simply about the penetrator status of the person, but the very fact that they (Philaenis/Megillos) articulate their relationship with the persons they desire as if they are men. These relationships further emerge in Pliny the Elder’s (NH 7.4) catalogue of possible trans* men. Ultimately, then, I adduce the tribas label as an instrument of empire making, wherein the intersection of gendered and racial difference (vis-à-vis Greek subjectivity) becomes implicated in that process (cf. Swancutt 2006; Snorton 2017), and is especially exposed in moments of “discovery” and marriage, not too foreign to the articulation of trans* men in the US during the turn of the 20th century (Skidmore 2015).