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Gender and Sexuality - 20 credits (HS3362)

Staff: Laurence Totelin, Stephen Lambert, Shaun Tougher

Greek and Roman societies can be seen to have 'constructed' their ideas of gender difference and of sexuality in ways markedly different from those currently the subject of assertion and dispute. Dominant views in both societies saw male and female 'natures' as radically different, and the male as in most ways superior to the female; these ideas had many interconnections with fundamental modes of social and political organisation. These ideas also produced many contradictions, varied over time and place, and were not unchallenged. Equally, it can be argued that more modern sharp divisions between heterosexual and homosexual identities in individuals did not exist, or operated in very different ways, in Greece and in Rome, and also that there were again many variations over time and place. The module analyses these issues in depth, focusing especially on the following ancient societies: Classical Athens and Classical Sparta; Hellenistic Greek societies, especially in Egypt; Roman society in the Republic and the early Empire.

Optional for: all Ancient History degrees
Availability: autumn and spring semesters in alternate years
Teaching: 20 lectures and 4 seminars
Assessment: one essay (35%); one source criticism (15%); one 2-hour examination (50%)

Syllabus content

  • early evidence for characteristic Greek views of the natures of men and women, and the physical and moral superiority of men, and for the development of homosexual/pederastic relationships
  • Spartan society: differentiated roles of men and women in society and religion; institutionalised pederasty in the education system and in social life; women, property, inheritance and the decline in Spartan population and coherent ideology
  • Athenian society: women's legal status, roles in marriage and inheritance, and informal power inside the household; conceptions of the differences between male and female bodies, health, capacities and sexual control; laws and values concerning homosexual behaviour and sexual deviance
  • Hellenistic Greece: developments in forms of marriage, and in types of sexual relations
  • Roman society: development in forms of marriage, guardianship and ownership of property; political and social power of elite women in the late Republic; attitudes in Rome to homosexuality; the impact of Augustus' regime and social legislation; elite women and their marriages in the early Empire


  • To consider the predominant (male-centred) views of gender-difference and sexualities in the societies of Greece and Rome, the tensions and contradictions these distinctive views may have produced, and their impact on sexual choices and on legal and social rules.
  • To study, in the light of these views, the developments in the legal and social position of women in these different societies of the ancient world, the varying opportunites for women in each society to exercise any power or control over their own lives, and their responses to the male norms and standards often imposed on them; and the prevalence and moral valuations of different forms of homosexual relationships

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, the student will demonstrate:

  • a knowledge of the legal rights and social roles of women in Classical Greece, Republican and Imperial Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt, and of legal and social attitudes to homosexual behaviour and sexual deviance in the same societies.
  • an understanding of modern debates on the extent to which sexualities and views of gender-difference are socially 'constructed'.
  • an ability to analyse critically a range of ancient sources, including philosophy, medical texts, law court speeches, drama and visual material, in order to read 'behind' the predominantly male and orthodox sources to try to reconstruct female experience.
  • an ability to discuss these issues in coursework and examinations with coherent and logical arguments, clearly and correctly expressed.

Primary sources

Text to be bought:
M. Lefkowitz and M. Fant, Women's Life in Greece and Rome (3rd edition, 2005)

Other relevant sourcebooks:
LACTOR 12: The Culture of Athens
J. Gardner and T. Wiedemann, The Roman Household (1991)
J.-A. Shelton, As the Romans Did (2nd edition, 1998)

Preliminary reading

S. Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (1994)
K. R. Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family (1991)
G. Clark, Women in the Ancient World (Greece & Rome Surveys 21, 1989)
J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes (1997)
K.J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (1978)
J. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (1986)
R. Just, Women in Athenian Law and Life (1990)
S. Lewis, The Athenian Woman: an Iconographic Handbook (2002)
B. Rawson (ed.), The Family in Ancient Rome (1986)
M. B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (2005)
C. Williams, Roman Homosexuality (1999)
J. J. Winkler, Constraints of Desire (1990)

Related modules

Prerequisites: HS3101 Introduction to Ancient Greek History or HS3102 Introduction to Roman History

Other modules to consider taking in conjunction with this one:

HS3309 Greek Values

HS3372 Greek and Roman Medicine