Beyond binaries.

1. Plato, Symposium (4th c. BCE), 189c-e. On the “third sex.” 

[189c] “It is indeed my intention, Eryximachus,” said Aristophanes, “to speak in somewhat different strain from you and Pausanias. For in my opinion humanity has entirely failed to perceive the power of Love: if men did perceive it, they would have provided him with splendid temples and altars, and would splendidly honor him with sacrifice; whereas we see none of these things done for him, though they are especially his due. [189d] He of all gods is most friendly to men; he helps mankind and heals those ills whose cure must be the highest happiness of the human race. Hence I shall try and introduce you to his power, that you may transmit this teaching to the world at large. You must begin your lesson with the nature of man and its development. For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, [189e] not merely the two sexes, male and female, as at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two, and whose name survives though, the thing itself has vanished. For ‘man-woman’ [= ἀνδρόγυνος] was then a unity in form no less than name, composed of both sexes and sharing equally in male and female; whereas now it has come to be merely a name of reproach. 

2a. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (1st c. BCE) 4.6.5: 

A birth like that of Priapus is ascribed by some writers of myths to Hermaphroditus, as he has been called, who was born of Hermes and Aphrodite and received a name which is a combination of those of both his parents. Some say that this Hermaphroditus is a god and appears at certain times among men, and that he is born with a physical body which is a combination of that of a man and that of a woman, in that he has a body which is beautiful and delicate like that of a woman, but has the masculine quality and vigour of a man. But there are some who declare that such creatures of two sexes are monstrosities, and coming rarely into the world as they do have the quality of presaging the future, sometimes for evil and sometimes for good. But let this be enough for us on such matters.

2b. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (1st c. BCE) 32.10.2-5:

[2] There was dwelling at Abae in Arabia a certain man named Diophantus, a Macedonian by descent. He married an Arabian woman of that region and begot a son, named for himself, and a daughter called Heraïs. Now the son he saw dead before his prime, but when the daughter was of an age to be married he gave her a dowry and bestowed her upon a man named Samiades. [3] He, after living in wedlock with his wife for the space of a year, went off on a  long journey. Heraïs, it is said, fell ill of a strange and altogether incredible infirmity. A severe tumour appeared at the base of her abdomen, and as the region became more and more swollen and high fevers supervened her physicians suspected that an ulceration had taken place at the mouth of the uterus. They applied such remedies as they thought would reduce the inflammation, but notwithstanding, on the seventh day, the surface of the tumour burst, and projecting from her groin there appeared a male genital organ with testicles attached.

Now when the rupture occurred, with its sequel, neither her physician nor any other visitors were present, but only her mother and two female slaves. [4] Dumbfounded at this extraordinary event they tended Heraïs as best they could, and said nothing of what had occurred. She, on recovering from her illness, wore feminine attire and continued to conduct herself as a homebody and as one subject to her husband. It was assumed, however, by those who were privy to the strange secret that she was an hermaphrodite, and as to her past life with her husband, since natural intercourse did not fit their theory, she was thought to have consorted with him homosexually.

[5] Now while her condition was still undisclosed, Samiades returned and, as was fitting, for very shame, could not bear to appear in his presence, he, they say, grew angry. As he continually pressed the point and claimed his wife, her father meanwhile denying his plea but feeling too embarrassed to disclose the reason, their disagreement soon grew into a quarrel. As a result Samiades  brought suit for his own wife against her father, for Fortune did in real life what she commonly does in plays and made the strange alteration lead to an accusation. After the judges took their seats and all the arguments had been presented, the person in dispute appeared before the tribunal, and the jurors debated whether the husband should have jurisdiction over his wife or the father over his daughter. [6] When, however, the court found that it was the wife’s duty to attend upon her husband, she at last revealed the truth. Screwing up her courage she unloosed the dress that disguised her, displayed her masculinity to them all, and burst out in bitter protest that anyone should require a man to cohabit with a man….

[8] Heraïs, changing her name to Diophantus, was enrolled in the cavalry, and after fighting in the king’s forces accompanied him in his withdrawal to Abae. Thus  it was that the oracle, which previously had not been understood, now became clear when the king was assassinated at Abae, the birthplace of the “two-formed one.” [9] As for Samiades, they say that he, a thrall still to his love and its old associations, but constrained by shame for his unnatural marriage, designated Diophantus in his will as heir to his property, and made his departure from life. Thus she who was born a woman took on man’s courage and renown, while the man proved to be less strong-minded than a woman.

3a. Ovid, Metamorphoses (1st c. CE) 4.368-388. Translated by A. D. Melville (1986).* Hermaphroditus. 

The youth fought back, denied the nymph [Salmacis] her joy;
She strained the more; her clinging body seemed
Fixed fast to his. “Fool, fight me as you will”,
She cried, “You’ll not escape! Ye Gods ordain
No day shall ever dawn to part us twain!”
Her prayer found gods to hear; both bodies merged
In one, both blended in one form and face.
As when a gardener sets a graft and sees
Growth seal the join and both mature together,
Thus, when in fast embrace their limbs were knit,
They two were two no more, nor man, nor woman —
One body then that neither seemed and both.
So when  he saw the waters of the pool,
Where he had dived a man, had rendered him
Half woman and his limbs now weak and soft,
Raising his hands, Hermaphroditus cried,
His voice unmanned, “Dear father and dear mother,
Both of those whose names I bear, grant me, your child,
That whoso in these waters bathes a man
Emerge half woman, weakened instantly.”
Both parents heard; both, moved to gratify
Their bi-sexed son, his purpose to ensure,
Drugged the bright water with that power impure.”

*Note: a new translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is currently being prepared by Stephanie McCarter (@samccart1). Read this transcription of a discussion between Stephanie McCarter and Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino), moderated by Joanna Stalnaker: “The Brutality of Ovid: A conversation on sex, violence, and power in the Metamorphoses.”

3b. “Alone Together” Steven Universe (2017). Stevonnie. 

4. Statue of Hermaphroditus (c. 20 BCE – 40 CE). Half-sized statue with “Egyptian”-style haircloth; cloak over the right shoulder revealing female breasts; display of male genitalia; Eros in left hand. Image: MFA Boston.

5a. Ovid, Metamorphoses (1st c. CE) 9.705-735. Translated by A. D. Melville (1986). Iphis and Ianthe. 

…a girl was born (unknown to Ligdus),
And Telethusa bade them tend the boy.
Trust hid the truth, and no one knew the trick
Except the nurse. The father paid his vows
And named the child after its grandfather,
Iphis, a name that gave its mother joy:
It meant no fraud — it could be a girl or boy.
So the long lie that love began lay hid.
She dressed her as a boy, and, whether judged
As boy or girl, the child was beautiful.
Time rolled apace and thirteen years passed by,
and then her father found Iphis a bride,
Teles’ charming daughter, golden-haired
Ianthe, highest praised of all the girls
Of Phaestos for her dower of loveliness.
Equal in age they were, equal in looks,
And both from the same masters had received
The first instruction of their early years;
And so it was that both their simple hearts
Love visited alike and both alike
Were smitten — but their hopes how different!
Ianthe longed to fix the wedding day,
To be a wife and take to be her man
Her Iphis, whom she took to be a man.
Poor Iphis loved a girl, girl loving girl,
And knew her love was doomed and loved the more.
Almost in tears, “What will become of me?”
She said, “possessed by love unheard of, love
So monstrous, so unique? If the gods mean
To spare me, they should spare me. If they mean
To ruin me, at least they should have sent
Some natural ill, some normal malady.
Cows never yearn for cows, nor mares for mares;
The ewe follows the ram, the hind her hart;
So the birds mate, so every animal;
A female never fires a female’s love.
Would I were not a girl!

5b. Ovid, Metamorphoses (1st c. CE) 9.786-791 Translated by A. D. Melville (1986).* Iphis and Ianthe. 

…At her side
Walked Iphis, as she went, with longer strides
Than usual, her cheeks of darker hue,
Her features firmer, limbs more powerful,
Her hanging tresses shorter and her strength
Greater than woman’s wont. She who had been
A girl a moment past was now a boy.

5c. Lisa Franklin (@lrfranks), “Life as an Iphis: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on Your Hopeless Gay Crush.” Eidolon, July 19th 2018.

At first, my thoughts on the Iphis myth focused on a few translations I’d found after reading the original text at school: in them, for some reason, the authors had written that Iphis called her own feelings “monstrous” (prodigiosa) in between the sobs and cattle comparisons. I’m a stickler for details, so perhaps I was more offended by the inaccuracy than the judgment evident in that word choice. These translations seemed to project an assumption that Ovid, and Iphis, would call Iphis a monster, but that’s not what prodigiosa means. Lewis & Short (for the uninformed: a Latin dictionary, not a little pair of colonizers) defines the adjective as “unnatural, strange, wonderful, marvelous, prodigious” — anything that you would never expect to see while canoeing along the Missouri River. The word shows up one other time in the Metamorphoses to describe a witch’s lavish palace. To render prodigiosa and Iphis’s other descriptions of her crush in those lines (cognita nulli, novaeque Veneris) as “monstrous” would require an embarrassing and vicious lack of intuition about the female experience. “Unknown, prodigious, and of a new kind of love.” Unfamiliar to nature — even unfamiliar to Venus! These words are clearly ancient girl-speak for our most prized and self-pitying retort: You wouldn’t understand.

5d. Sasha Barish, “Iphis’ Hair, Io’s Reflection, and the Gender Dysphoria of the Metamorphoses.” Eidolon, July 16th 2018.

So maybe stories like this are not proof that my people existed in ancient Rome; in a way, they’re proof that my people were so silent that we were confined to fantasy stories, existing only to symbolize the epitome of impossibility. The fact that Iphis is fictional — that her words are really Ovid’s — also prompted my reevaluation of her identity. After all, it’s easy to be sympathetic to Iphis’ speech if you imagine that she’s a real person, who is transgender or gay and feels isolation and self-loathing because of it. But a sentence like “nowhere in nature does a female experience love for a female” takes on a different meaning when someone says it about another person rather than about oneself. Ovid is not in Iphis’ situation or mine, most obviously because he is not female. It’s one thing for me to say about my own experience, “I feel different and unnatural,” and it’s quite another thing for Ovid to say, as it were, “If I were like you, I would feel different and unnatural.” When I think about it that way, Iphis’ speech feels alienating and a little insulting.

English translations: Plato’s Symposium, Harold N. Fowler (1925); Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, C. H. Oldfather (1935); Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A. D. Meville (1986).


Augustan Rome.

— Augustan marriage laws
— Livia
— Ovid’s love poetry

1a. Ara Pacis Augustae, The Altar of Augustan Peace. Pledged 13 BCE, dedicated 9 BCE. The altar, made of Carrara/Luna marble, was erected in the northern Campus Martius, voted in 4th July 13 BCE by the senate (according to Augustus’ Res Gestae 12) to commemorate his safe return from Gaul and Spain, and dedicated 30th January 9 BCE, the birthday of Augustus’ wife, Livia (Ovid Fasti 1.709-722). An acanthus frieze binds the whole design in unity. Image: “Rabax63” (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia.


1b. Hypothesized colour light projection. Image: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images, see Bond 2017. See also this video which shows the other sides with colour projected.

Ara Pacis colour

1c. Aerial plan of the Ara Pacis. Text overlay by Čulík-Baird based on Pollini ap. Tuck 2016: 121; base image: “Augusta 89” (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia.

1d. Detail of frieze on the east side of Ara Pacis. A seated female figure, variously interpreted as Mother Earth (tellus), Peace (pax), Venus, Ceres, or Italy, with two babies in her lap. Sheep and cow rest beneath her. Representations of fresh water, air, and sea (indicated by tipped over water jug left, billowing drapery, and waves at right). Image: Manfred Hedye (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia.


1e. Detail of frieze on the south side of the Ara Pacis, showing individuals believed to be Agrippa, Livia, and Tiberius. Strong visual connection to the 5th c. BCE Parthenon frieze at Athens. Unprecedented depiction of women and children in a sculptural relief. Image: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia.

ara_pacis_relieve_roma_01 (1)

2. Portraits of Livia (b. 58 BCE, d. 29 CE), wife of Augustus (r. 27 BCE – 14 CE).

2a. Mid to late 30s BCE, marble. Livia is represented with “a new coiffure with no precursors in the ancient world — the nodus hairstyle — in which a section of hair is arranged in a nodus or roll over the forehead. The rest of the hair is brushed back in loose waves over the ears and fastened in a bun at the back of the head” (Diana Kleiner I, Claudia 1996: 53). Image: Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery.


Diana Kleiner (I, Claudia 1996: 53): “In these portraits, Livia is depicted as a serene beauty with almond-shaped eyes and a small rounded mouth. Her prominent aquiline nose is also accentuated. There is in these portraits little indication, even in Livia’s later years, of the aging process. This was in keeping with the Augustan ideal of an eternal youthfulness for portraiture of men and women that was based on the images of youthful male athletes and goddesses.”

2b. Siân Phillips as Livia in the 1976 BBC television adaptation of I, Claudius.


3. Suetonius (2nd c. CE), Life of Augustus 62-63

Shortly after that he married Scribonia…He divorced her also, “unable to put up with her shrewish disposition,” as he himself writes, and at once took Livia Drusilla from her husband Tiberius Nero, although she was with child at the time; and he loved and esteemed her to the end without a rival. [63] By Scribonia he had a daughter Julia, by Livia no children at all, although he earnestly desired issue. One baby was conceived, but was prematurely born.

4a. Suetonius (2nd c. CE), Life of Augustus 34:

He revised existing laws and enacted some new ones, for example, on extravagance, on adultery and chastity, on bribery, and on the encouragement of marriage among the various classes of citizens. Having made somewhat more stringent changes in the last of these than in the others, he was unable to carry it out because of an open revolt against its provisions, until he had abolished or mitigated a part of the penalties, besides increasing the rewards and allowing a three years’ exemption from the obligation to marry after the death of a husband  or wife. When the knights even then persistently called for its repeal at a public show, he sent for the children of Germanicus and exhibited them, some in his own lap and some in their father’s, intimating by his gestures and expression that they should not refuse to follow that young man’s example. And on finding that the spirit of the law was being evaded by betrothal with immature girls and by frequent changes of wives, he shortened the duration of betrothals and set a limit on divorce.

4b. Women in the Classical World, p302-303:

“The Augustan laws, designed to penalize those citizens who remained unmarried or childless (women between 20 and 50 and men after the age of 25) and those who committed adultery or married women or men of the “wrong” social rank or status, had as their goals the moral revitalization of the upper class, the raising of the birth rate among citizens, and the policing of sexual behaviour  in the attempt to reintroduce conservative social values and control the social conduct of an upper class seen as more interested in pleasure and autonomy than in duty and community…The laws, first issued probably in 18 BCE, and amended by supplementary legislation more than 25 years later in 9 CE as the Lex Papia Poppaea, are today known mainly in fragmentary and sometimes distorted from in the writings of later jurists and historians who cite them. Issues of marriage and reproduction that once had been mainly under the control of families now became, at least on paper, public and the purview of the community as a whole. The laws penalized people who did not marry or have children by attacking their eligibility to inherit wealth.”

5. Julia and Julia. 

  • Julia the Elder (daughter of Augustus) in 2 BCE was charged with multiple adulteries and sent into exile (Velleius Paterculus 2.100.3; Pliny NH 7.149) — Velleius gives a list of five adulterers, all with noble Republican names, including Iullus Antonius (son of Mark Antony); Julia was initially sent to the island of Pandateria, an island less than 2 miles long (Tacitus Annales 1.53Dio Cassius 55.10.14), later Reggio.
  • Julia the Younger (daughter of Julia) was also exiled for adultery in 8 CE, suspected of an affair with D. Silanus (Tacitus Annales 3.24.5); Julia was sent to the island of Trimerus. Augustus refused to allow Julia’s child, born in exile, to be raised (Suet. Aug. 65). The poet, Ovid, who was also exiled in 8 CE, writes that it was because of carmen (poem) and error (a mistake), Tristia 2.207. Tristia 2.103ff. claims he saw something unwittingly.

6a. Ovid, Amores 1.5. Translated by John Svarlien. 

It was hot – the day already more than half gone.
I lay where I’d dropped on the bed.
It happened a window was half-open. Light filtered in
like light falling in a forest;
like the afterglow of twilight or when it’s dawn
but the night hasn’t quite faded.
That’s the kind of dim light shy girls like – it gives
their modesty some cover.
The door opens. In comes Corinna, her dress half buttoned,
her hair fixed to show off that lovely neck.
She looked as lovely as Semiramis on her wedding night
or Lais in anyone’s bed.
I tore off the dress. To make it more fun she fought
to keep the flimsy thing half on.
We struggled; I won! Her protests betrayed
the truth: she had wanted to lose.
Clothes littered the room. There stood Corinna nude.
God, what a masterpiece she was!
Looking was not enough; I had to touch those shoulders, those arms;
mold my hands round each round breast.
Her belly’s subtle curves coaxed my fingers on. Soon I felt
the supple swell of hips and thighs.
But why catalogue the store of pleasure her body held?
I held her naked in my arms.
You can fantasize the rest. We were exhausted and slept.
May many afternoons be so well spent.

6b. Ovid, Amores 1.8.35-54. Translated by John Svarlien.

Does that make you blush? Hmm, a little color adds tone to your complexion;
but dab on some rouge; don’t rely on nature.
Keep your eyes leveled on your lap; gear your fetching glances
to the price a customer’s gift will bring.
Maybe in Tatius’ time the Sabine girls went unadorned and
refused service to any but a husband.
Now Mars leads our boys around the world to test their courage;
but Venus rules the city of her Aeneas.
The fun’s non-stop for sexy girls; the chaste are those no one asks out.
Only a hick wouldn’t ask the man herself.
As for prim matrons, take another look – those venerable wrinkles hide
tales of debauchery that would shock you.
Penelope knew how to try the strength of young men: she had them
straining to arch the bow’s bone.
Time slips by unnoticed – it goes spinning along out of control;
a year has raced by before you know it.
Bronze is polished bright by use; a lovely dress is made to show off,
if a house stands empty, it rots.
The same goes for beauty: you have to use it. You can’t save it for rainy days.
Don’t think one lover makes a spring.

6c. Ovid, Amores 2.13. Diane Arnson Svarlien.

For trying to unseat the burden crouched in her swelling womb,
for her audacity, Corinna lies near death.
I should be furious: to take such a risk! And without telling me!
But anger fails me — I’m so afraid.
You see, I’m the one who got her that way, or so I believe;
I might as well be, since I could have been.
Isis! Great queen of Paraetonium, of Canopus’ joyful plains,
of Memphis, and of Pharos, rich in palm-trees,
of the broad delta where the swift Nile spreads, and pours
his waters to the sea through seven mouths,
I pray, by your sacred rattles, by the venerated face of Anubis —
may faithful Osiris forever love your rites!
may the unhurried snake glide always amid your offerings,
and horned Apis travel at your side! —
come here, look kindly upon her, and save two lives in one:
for you’ll give life to her, and she to me.
She’s been devout: performed each service on your festival days,
observed the Gallic laurel ritual.
And you, who comfort laboring women in their time of distress, when
the lurking burden strains their bodies hard,
come gently now, and smile upon my prayers, Ilithyia —
she’s worthy of your intervention — please!
I myself, in white robes, will bring incense to your smoking altar;
I myself will offer votive gifts
and lay them at your feet with the inscription, “For Corinna’s Life.”
Goddess, give occasion for those words!
Corinna, listen, if you’re out of danger:
please don’t ever go through this again!

6d. Ovid, Amores 2.14.1-22. Translated by Diane Arnson Svarlien.

What good does it do for girls to be exempt from combat, freed
from all the dangers that our soldiers face,
if they will suffer self-inflicted wounds far from the front lines,
and blindly brandish arms against their own
bodies? The woman who first took aim at her helpless fetus
should have died by her own javelin.
Can it be possible that, simply to avoid a few stretch-marks,
you’d make your womb a bloody battleground?
What if our forebears had forborne to bear? Without willing mothers
the world would be unpopulated – again
someone would have to seed the empty earth with flung stones.
Priam’s palace wouldn’t have been sacked
if sea-goddess Thetis had refused to shoulder (so to speak) her load;
if Ilia, her belly swollen big,
had terminated her twins in utero, who would have founded
the City that was bound to rule the world?
If Venus, in her audacity, had aborted fetal Aeneas
the Caesars never would have graced our land.
Even you (though you were meant to be born a beauty) would have died
if your mother had attempted what you’ve tried.
I myself (though personally I plan to die of love) would not
have seen the light of day, had mother killed me.