7 Queer Icons From the Ancient World They Don’t Teach in School


When an illustrator and a poet went searching for queer stories in the history and mythology of Greco-Roman antiquity, they found nothing less than an army of boyfriends. Specifically, in the fourth century B.C., an elite troop composed only of pairs of gay lovers battled its way across ancient Greece.

This battalion of boyfriends is just one set in the romantic cast of queer characters in “300,000 Kisses: Tales of Queer Love From the Ancient World,” an illustrated compendium, released this week, by the Irish poet Sean Hewitt and the English artist and designer Luke Edward Hall.

Mr. Hall illustrated the stories in portraits with yearning gazes, strong jaws and androgynous poses, while Mr. Hewitt composed effervescent, often moving poems from older translations (many of which had skirted the homoerotic elements), with occasional winks and gestures to contemporary gay sensibilities. Together, the pair revived a parade’s worth of ancient queer lovers, mourners, seducers and icons. Here are seven in whose personalities, desires or entanglements you just may find echoes with 21st-century queer life.

“This is an argument about gender identity in the middle of a threesome,” Kate Gilhuly, a professor of classical studies at Wellesley College and the author of “Erotic Geographies in Ancient Greek Literature and Culture,” said about this story of a lusty encounter on Lesbos. “Megilla refuses to be misunderstood. She’s very stalwart about asserting her own identity, which is never completely clarified.”

“She refers to herself as a woman with the mind of a man, so is it a butch identity? A trans identity?” Mr. Hewitt asked. “But Megilla can’t understand your petty concerns about trying to put her in a box. She’s post-identity in this futuristic way — and with the bald head, she would be in place in movies like ‘Total Recall’ or ‘Fifth Element.’”

“She’s a really curious character,” said Nancy Worman, a professor of classics and comparative literature at Barnard College. “‘Post-category’ captures it.”

The lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton are “tyrant slayers,” battling valiantly for democracy — and to settle a petty squabble. “It’s all a little spat because some guy hits on this really pretty boy and his older lover takes issue with it,” Professor Worman explained. “It’s very individual and personal, but the story is situated in such a way that it attaches to the beginnings of democracy something homoerotic or homosexual at the core.”

The assassins-slash-lovers execute an exciting, messy plot and vow to take everyone down with them, if they go. Donna Zuckerberg, the author of “Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age,” described Harmodius and Aristogeiton as “a pair who show that love brings out the best in us — not necessarily the best morally, but the best performance.”

Philaenis likes working out, drinking and sexually dominating people of all genders. “We might conceive of her as bisexual, but in the ancient world, we’re probably thinking not so much about identity but what kind of sex you have,” said Tom Sapsford, an assistant professor at Boston College who researches gender and sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome. “She’s trying to have sex in the most manly way.”

“She’s meant to be a parody of an androgynous or tomboyish woman, but I think, inadvertently, that gives her a lot of power,” Mr. Hewitt, the poet, said. “I imagine her as big and tattooed, maybe in a suit like a bouncer, laying down the law at a dive bar.”

Here is someone who has it all, except luck in love. In “300,000 Kisses,” there is not one but two stories, both translated from “Metamorphoses,” about the gorgeous sun god Apollo falling deeply in love with a beautiful mortal man, who dies in some poetic way (a discus to the face; a fracas with a stag).

“He’s like the lonely model, adored by everyone, who nothing ever goes right for,” Mr. Hewitt said, “or like Ariana Grande or Jennifer Aniston.”

Apollo is “not one of those gods who has a primary partner,” Dr. Zuckerberg said. (In that respect, he’s in lofty company.) “He’s one of those people who falls so hard and every new person is the love of his life. And you believe that he believes it.”

Mr. Hewitt’s translation of a spell found on a magically binding tablet in Egypt during the rule of the Roman Empire describes a woman named Sophia who tries to enlist a variety of underworld deities to inflame the liver of another woman, Gorgonia, with love for her.

“There’s a bunny-boiler energy to Sophia, and something quite BDSM about this whole spell,” Mr. Hewitt said. “It crosses the line of consent many times.”

“What’s so rare about this text is that Sophia was a real woman, living in Upper Egypt,” Professor Sapsford said. “And so through that, we know that same-sex eroticism is happening there, at least openly enough that she will go to a scribe and have her name and this other woman’s name put on a document.”

In this story, a mother raises her daughter as a boy to spare her child from death. When the daughter, Iphis, is promised to marry a beautiful woman, the girl is thrilled but also ashamed of her queer desire. Luckily, the gods intervene and transform Iphis into a man just in time for the wedding.

“It begs to be read as a queer story,” Dr. Zuckerberg said. “Is it queer love made normative through transformation, or is it the story of a trans man who gets his wish to be able to live in his gender?”

Dr. Zuckerberg sees a resonance with queer couples who are conflicted about their participation in that most heteronormative of institutions: marriage. “How do you take joy in the parts of the system that can make you feel seen without reinscribing its more oppressive elements?” she asked.

In “Lives,” Plutarch describes the Sacred Band as a successful army composed of pairs of lovers, whose affection and desire propel them to excellence.

For the illustration, Mr. Hall set about capturing “this mix of strength and softness” in his soldiers, he said. For Mr. Hewitt, the Sacred Band, with its fierce determination and reliance on gay affection, reminds him of a contemporary Pride march. As he writes in his introduction to the tale, activists with the AIDS coalition ACT UP in the 1990s used a fragment from this Plutarch passage in a famous pamphlet they passed around that declared: “An Army of Lovers Cannot Lose.”


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