Bisexuality In The Ancient World

By Bernie Marchand

April 16, 2020



Photo credit: Pexels/Josiah Lewis

It's common to hear people talk about the prevalence of sexual openness in ancient Greece and Rome, but where do these claims come from? Historians classify the ancient time period from 3000 BC to AD 500. Experts such as Eva Cantarella and Craig A. Williams have established that bisexuality did indeed play a significant part in ancient society, particularly in Greek and Roman culture.

There are a number of articles that tackle the history of bisexuality and homosexuality during this time. Bustle has a great article summarizing the history of bisexuality spanning across the globe, from antiquity to today. In another article, Viking laws point to evidence that the concept of homosexuality existed. There is no clear distinction between bisexuality and homosexuality in writings from the ancient world. However, as many of these people were married to members of the opposite sex, it seems safe to say that there were some bi people. However, bisexuality wasn’t done in the open and proud way that we talk about it now.

To begin with, almost all of the recorded bisexuality is specific to men. There are very few records of same-sex relationships between women. The notable exception being the esteemed poet Sappho, who you can thank for the words sapphic and lesbian. While her surviving poetry centers around a deep desire for women lovers (and some male lovers), history is fuzzy on how much of this hot lady on lady action actually took place, and/or if she was married to a man. You can learn more about the mystery of Sappho in this wonderful New Yorker article.

Erastes (lover) and eromenos (beloved) kissing. Detail from the tondo of a red-figure Attic cup, ca. 480 BC.

The main reason for the lack of information about bi women is erasure by the predominant culture. History is written by those in power and we see a significant lack of insight into women’s perspectives and lives, let alone their sexuality. The most we know about the women in ancient Greece are the sex workers, if that isn’t enough evidence that ancient history was written by men, I don’t know what to tell you.

What we know about ancient male bisexuality is not great news either. Much of what we have recorded indicate a sexual relationship between two men with unequal dynamics. These relationships were usually between older men of high status and younger men, some as young as 13, and of lower status. While Greek and Roman culture were fairly accepting of these relationships, it was forbidden for men to be exclusive with one another. Men were expected to have wives. This was true in other parts of the world during this time period as well. Viking cultures punished men who tried to avoid marriage to a woman in lieu of a relationship with a man. And while being the aggressor in a sexual relationship was encouraged, being the passive partner was suspicious and considered weak.

All of this — the exploitative sex, the lack of representation of women, and the criminality — does not bode well for the understanding of bisexuality as we know it today. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to. Keep in mind that recent culture, even if it seems ancient to us, only represents a small fragment of the entirety of human history. The modern human, homo sapiens, evolved some 350,000 years ago. Civilization, as we know it, starting from ancient times to today, is 5,020 years. That is a little over one percent of our entire history. A little over one percent of human history includes ALL of civilization. Just let that sink in for a moment — what we call “ancient culture” is not really that old. Let’s say, to be generous, 90% of our history is unknown!

This can provide some relief when we read the humans histories that have been written by those in power. They wrote 1% of it, but we can turn that around. While we have made rapid technological advances as civilizations developed, many of these developments came about due to exploitation, slavery, and brutality. Yes, the Greeks created great poetry and architecture but they also saw women as possessions and slavery was alive and well. Instead of validating our sexuality by pointing to the bi evidence of a brutal, patriarchal soaked past, let’s try to go further back and understand our development based on the mysterious remaining 90% of human history.

If we want a different portrait of queer relationships in general, anthropologists can look to surviving hunter-gatherer cultures to provide a window to our prehistoric past. Hunter-gatherer and remaining indigenous cultures most closely resemble prehistoric society. Some tribes indigenous to the Americas have coined the term "Two-Spirit" to encompass a large cultural phenomenon of individuals transcending sexual and gender norms. Individuals who identify as Two-Spirit neither identify as men or women, but incorporate aspects of both genders and “occupy a distinct, alternative gender”. These people are esteemed members of society and have same-sex relationships. While Two-Spirit is a new term, it was agreed upon as a way to express a common concept found in many tribes.

The fact that Two-Spirit individuals were ubiquitous enough to still be a present and enduring part of indigenous cultures indicates how deeply rooted this concept is. Before the "ancient world" sexuality could very well have been more fluid and dynamic.

While ancient culture plays a vital role in understanding human history, we have to remember that history is framed within a context. And for much of history, the context is incomplete. I think that it is more powerful to acknowledge and validate who we are today. If we are experiencing genuine, powerful feelings, emotional impulses to love, we can presume other people in history have experienced these same feelings. Nothing needs to be verified.

In my mind, the bigger argument is not about if bisexuality is validated by the past, but if we can see the expansion of human sexuality into the future. Prehistory invites us to imagine a future free from the constraints of ancient influences. We have the ability to evolve past the harmful culture of shame to find the freedom of expression and value of love for all.