I’ve recently finished my MA dissertation (hurray!) and it focussed on disability in ancient Rome. Part of my research focussed on intersex people, those the Romans knew as hermaphrodites or those with an ambiguous gender. It’s a fairly unusual topic but one which tells us a great deal about how the Romans treated those they categorised as ‘abnormal’.
Intersex people in modern society are rare. Some conditions such as Classical Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia are estimated to occur in 1 in 130,000 births in the U.S. (Intersex Society of North America). It is likely, in Roman society, intersex people were equally as rare but the Romans were aware of their condition in some capacity and, like with many other people with disabilities, treated intersex people with fear and contempt.
Here’s what you need to know about the Roman’s relationship with intersex people:
– The Romans were unaware of the different conditions which cause individuals to display both male and female attributes. They believed those born with physical variations were signs of natural corruption. As such, intersex people could be considered as punishments or warnings from the gods.
– The Romans coined the term hermaphrodite, after Hermaphroditus (the divine offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite). The Greeks previously used a term similar to androgynous, according to Livy (27.11.4) and Pliny (NH 7.34).
– The majority of sources which deal with intersex people and the Romans concern Rome’s mythological past, including Romulus’ reign and the following few centuries. Authors such as Livy and Julius Obsequens, writing many centuries after the events supposedly occurred, are also thought to have embellished their accounts. Furthermore, their original sources (thought to be priestly records) are now lost to us.
– Intersex people were considered prodigies; viewed as both divine punishment of the family and the Roman state and warnings of impending doom. The birth of intersex infants, who were of neither male nor female gender, represented a physical manifestation of corruption within the state.
– The births of intersex babies are recorded alongside unusual animal births, such as ‘a lamb with a pig’s head’ (Livy 31.12.6-8.) This tells us that intersex infants were considered as almost ‘sub-human’. The births usually took place in settlements outside the limited confines of the Roman state at the time. In this way, the Roman state may have been able to suggest to their citizens that the births were warnings not necessarily within their own state but close enough to home to warrant concern.
– Intersex infants were killed shortly after their births. Their murder usually involved an ‘expiation’ ceremony, a ritual carried out to appease the gods. The baby would be placed in a box and drown at sea (or in one instance, a river). Prior to the baby’s disposal hymns, dedicated to Ceres and Persephone, were sung by 27 virgins and sacrifices were made.
– The expiation ceremonies usually coincided with times of political strife, such as a ritual carried out in 207 BCE during the Second Punic Wars. As such, intersex infants were used as scapegoats.
– Some parents of intersex children did attempt to conceal their child’s true nature from the state. One instance, recorded in Livy (31.12.6-8.), refers to a 16-year-old intersex child who was discovered by the Haruspices (those in charge of interpreting divinations) and killed. That the child survived to the age of 16 is telling. Either the child’s parents concealed him or the child (possibly not an intersex person) may have simply been a scapegoat, used to show that the state was fulfilling their duties to the gods in understanding their divine will through prodigies.
– The attitude towards intersex people appears to have changed over time. Initially, as we have seen above, intersex children were thought of with fear and disgust. By the 1st century CE, intersex people were regarded with fascination. Phelgon of Tralles (FGrH F36.6) recorded how a high-born girl, on her wedding day, began to experience incapacitating stomach pains and within days had physically transformed into a man. The case was brought to Claudius’ attention and he celebrated the ‘rebirth’, honouring the gods’ intervention with an altar. Males were highly prized in patriarchal Roman society and Claudius’ celebration of the transition appears to reinforce the importance of males and male heirs within society and elite families.
– Intersex people were depicted in art often for humorous purposes. The Sleeping Hermaphrodite type, which depicts a seemingly feminized figure lying on hir side, was deliberately designed as an illusion (see top image and one below). Those approaching the statue may have assumed – as many modern viewers do – that the sleeping figure is wholly female only to discover the figure possesses male genitalia (Von Stackelberg, 2014). Similarly wall paintings from Pompeii depict satyrs attempting to rape intersex people. The image was seemingly intended to be humorous (from the perspective of Roman viewers) as the viewer was aware of the individual’s true nature whereas the satyr was not.
If you want to learn more about intersex people in ancient Rome, take a look at:
Garland, R. 1995. The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World. London: Duckworth
Graumann, L.A. 2013. Monstrous Births and Retrospective Diagnosis: The Case of Hermaphrodites in Antiquity. In: Laes, C., Goodey, C., Lynn Rose, M. eds. Disabilities in Roman Antiquity: Disparate Bodies A Capite ad Calcem. Leiden: Brill, pp. 181-210.
Greaves, A.M. 2012. Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (Reifenstein’s Syndrome) in the Roman World. The Classical Quarterly. Vol. 62/2, pp. 888-892.
Satterfield, S. 2011. Notes on Phlegon’s Hermaphrodite Oracle and the Publication of Oracles in Rome. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge. Vol. 154/1, pp. 117-124.
Von Stackelberg, K.T. 2014. Garden Hybrids: Hermaphrodite Images in the Roman House. Classical Antiquity. Vol. 33/2, pp. 395-426.