When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Log in .

You've reached your limit of one free article.

Get unlimited access to Worldcrunch

You can cancel anytime .


Exclusive International news coverage

Ad-free experience NEW

Weekly digital Magazine NEW

9 daily & weekly Newsletters

Access to Worldcrunch archives

Free trial

30-days free access, then $2.90
per month.

Annual Access BEST VALUE

$19.90 per year, save $14.90 compared to monthly billing.save $14.90.

Subscribe to Worldcrunch

A New History Course Explores LGBTQ Life In Ancient Egypt, Greece And Rome

While certain figures from ancient mythology are sometimes held up as LGBTQ ancestors – such as the Greek gods Apollo and Zeus, there is plenty of lesser known history about same-sex attraction and gender variance beyond a strict male-female binary.

painting of two women holding each other

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene

Tina Chronopoulos

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of course:

“LGBTQ Antiquity: A View from the Mediterranean”

What prompted the idea for the course?

I study Greek and Latin literature and have noticed that ancient authors wrote about sex, homoerotic feelings or relations, and gender more often than we assume.

A few figures from ancient Mediterranean mythology are sometimes held up as LGBTQ ancestors – such as the Greek gods Apollo and Zeus, who both loved other men. But in a mythology course I taught in the fall of 2021, I found myself highlighting a number of other stories about same-sex attraction and gender variance beyond a strict male-female binary. For example, spells from Egypt show that there were women who tried to get other women to fall in love with them.

Students responded with such curiosity and excitement that I decided to create a stand-alone course that would focus exclusively on these topics.

drawing of a man mourning a dead man

Achilles mourning Patrocles


About the course

What does the course explore?

The course explores literary texts from the ancient Mediterranean – including Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Roman Italy – in which authors describe relationships that can be said to fall under the LGBTQ umbrella. We read the texts in chronological order, rather than grouped by theme or identity. This allows students to encounter the texts relatively label-free, since the words U.S. society uses to talk about gender and sexuality today – like “gay” or “transgender” – do not always align with ancient understandings.

Why is this course relevant now?

Assaults on members of the LGBTQ community, especially trans folks, are rising in the United States: both through legal means in a number of states and through physical attacks and hate crimes.

My goal is for students to take courage and hope from knowing that same-sex relationships and gender diversity have existed in various guises for millennia. In antiquity, homosexuality was not considered an identity category the way it is today, making it hard to determine if and how LGBTQ-like people were discriminated against, but they certainly were not always met with contempt. For example, the body of Hermaphroditus, a god whom Greeks sought out for help with fertility and child care issues, combined female and male characteristics.

I couldn’t find myself in history. No one like me seemed to have ever existed.

I also want students to connect with the past as a way to feel rooted and validated. In this, I took a cue from trans activist Leslie Feinberg, who wrote in the 1996 book “Transgender Warriors,” “I couldn’t find myself in history. No one like me seemed to have ever existed.”

Egyptian drawing of two men and their children

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep accompanied by their offspring.


Lessons and materials

What’s a critical lesson from the course?

LGBTQ-like individuals have always been here, although modern conceptions of self, gender and sexuality cannot be mapped directly onto the past.

The identities we know today were unknown then: The concept of homosexuality as a distinct sexual orientation or distinct kind of behavior did not exist. For instance, elite men in ancient Athens often engaged in same-sex relationships with men alongside their marriages to women. Those who were in exclusively homoerotic relationships, however, tended to be ridiculed.

Another critical lesson is that language matters. The words we use today are often inadequate to capture how social status or age intersected with one’s gender in the ancient Mediterranean. Take the Greek word for a woman or wife, “γῠνή.” Typically, this word refers to an upper-class woman, rather than, say, one who is enslaved or a foreigner. Norms around sexual activity depended on a person’s social status, age and gender.

What materials does the course feature?

Students come into the course expecting to encounter celebrated characters such as the poet Sappho, from the Greek island of Lesbos, whom lesbians have regarded as an ancestor.

However, we also read less famous authors, such as Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian-born satirist from the second century C.E. In one of his dialogues, a sex worker tells her friend about an encounter she had with two other women, one of whom describes herself as “quite like a man.”

Not all authors are sympathetic. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople at the end of the fourth century C.E., vilified people who engaged in homoerotic acts or homosexual relationships as criminals, mentally ill, diseased or diabolic. Many of these views are still being promulgated by religious leaders today.

The course also explores the lives of some Byzantine saints who were seen as women before they entered a monastery or became ascetics. Yet their self-punishing practices, such as extreme fasting, transformed their bodies, and the surrounding communities started to see them as men. These stories, which aimed to uplift their audiences, serve as a reminder that cross-dressing and gender variance were not always seen as objectionable.The Conversation

Tina Chronopoulos, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


Violence Against Women, The Patriarchy And Responsibility Of The Good Men Too

The femicide of Giulia Cecchettin has shaken Italy, and beyond. Argentine journalist Ignacio Pereyra looks at what lies behind femicides and why all men must take more responsibility.

photo of a young man holding a sign: Filippo isn't a monster, he's the healthy son of the patriarchy

A protester's sign referring to the alleged killer reads: Filippo isn't a monster, he's the healthy son of the patriarchy

Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press
Ignacio Pereyra

Updated Dec. 3, 2023 at 10:40 p.m.


ATHENS — Are you going to write about what happened in Italy?, Irene, my partner, asks me. I have no idea what she's talking about. She tells me: a case of femicide has shaken the country and has been causing a stir for two weeks.

As if the fact in itself were not enough, I ask what is different about this murder compared to the other 105 women murdered this year in Italy (or those that happen every day around the world).

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

We are talking about a country where the expression "fai l'uomo" (be a man) abounds, with a society so prone to drama and tragedy and so fond of crime stories as few others, where the expression "crime of passion" is still mistakenly overused.

In this context, the sister of the victim reacted in an unexpected way for a country where femicide is not a crime recognized in the penal code, contrary to what happens, for example, in almost all of Latin America.

Keep reading...Show less

The latest