Pompeii, the “Two Maidens,” and Thousands of Years of Precarious Masculinity

The pop archaeology world is astir right now thanks to the discovery that the Two Maidens of Pompeii, bodies found curled around each other as a volcanic eruption buried them alive, are actually men. Or at least, possessed of Y chromosomes. This, coupled with the fact that they’re unrelated to each other, has led to the media declaring them gay lovers with a self congratulatory smugness at their own liberality.

There’s an awful lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the assumption that chromosomes dictate gender, or even assigned sex. Genetic testing is in some ways an even less accurate indicator of gender identity than attempting to sex a skeleton because it completely ignores the existence of a whole host of intersex persons. More importantly, neither method gives us insight into the person’s gender identity or the way that their society in their time understood them. The balance of probability tells us that these people were probably cis men, but as with so much of archaeology we cannot say for certain, and to do so is damaging in the assumptions it makes and reinforces about the biology and identity.

That said, even if they were men, why would two people clinging together in the midst of an apocalyptic nightmare mean they were romantically involved?

More than one archaeologist has noted that its interesting that when the maidens were assumed to be, well, maidens, no one suggested they were lovers. Following that line of thought, it’s not just interesting but downright illuminating that they were assumed to be women in the first place. There’s nothing to indicate gender about the bodies; they’re two amorphous grey figures with a roughly human form. What suggests first femininity and then male queerness to the viewer is a conception of masculinity that codes platonic touch and the expression of non-aggressive emotion as a deviation from it — their vulnerability, physical closeness and obvious suffering exclude them from normative masculinity and their maleness needs to be explained through reference to sexuality. Nobody thought of lesbians when they believed the maidens to be women, not only because softness and touch are the provinces of women, but because women aren’t imagined as having a sexuality independent of men.

This version of masculinity isn’t even that old, and it certainly isn’t Roman. The idea that men don’t engage in platonic touch is a result of the homosexual panics of the twentieth century that sexualised all physical contact between men and reactively redefined normative masculinity to shun it. Prior to that men in the West engaged in the same kinds of platonic intimacy that can be seen around the world, hand holding, hugging and even bed sharing without any sexual connotations. Similarly, while “uncontrolled emotions” have always been coded feminine, the expression of strong but nonviolent emotions has been an essential part of many masculinities — including that of ancient Rome. All of this is to say that Roman men would have been fine with cuddling in the face of certain, fiery death, and it would in no way have been at odds with their identities as strong, manly men.

Not that Roman masculinity was any less toxic than the masculinity of today. While a Roman man could weep publicly in his grief and have his masculinity affirmed for it, the foundation stone of Roman gender identity was penetration — who did it, and who had it done to them. Roman sexuality wasn’t divided into the homo-hetero binary of today (with its closet full of invisible bisexuals), instead it was divided along the lines of penetrator and penetrated or, broken down to the fundamentals, power vs powerlessness. Like the ancient Greek culture on steroids Roman relationships could not be conducted between equals, at least not if they wanted a veneer of respectability, but where age and gender were the relevant axis in Greece, in Rome it was gender and citizen status. The acceptable targets for Roman male lust were women and slaves of any gender, while for a citizen male being penetrated was the highest shame. Interestingly, cunnilingus was considered a form of penetration, and for a man to perform it on a woman was both more and less shameful than for him to be penetrated by another man. It also brought shame onto the woman; like sex between women, it involved her stepping outside of her “natural” role as a submissive sheath to a man’s sword. To be clear, it’s not that same-gender peer relationships didn’t happen, it’s just that people had to be circumspect about them. Despite all the differences, there are some similarities to modern conservative beliefs about sex and gender.

Repugnant as Roman sexual standards were it’s still important to acknowledge them in any article that discusses a Roman’s sexuality, a statement so obvious that it was nearly painful to type. But most of the articles about the Maidens’ genetic makeup don’t even touch on it, allowing that silence to affirm for the reader that the Roman’s beliefs about sexuality and gender were just like ours. Like the confident statement that a DNA test can tell us the gender of a skeleton, this approach reinforces the idea that sexuality and gender are constants across human societies, that there is something biological and intrinsic to them rather than their being constructs specific to each culture and time. It lets us pretend that homophobia and patriarchy are natural instead of culturally specific phenomenons that we’ve only recently, in our benevolence, started to overturn.

We have no reason to think that the Two Maidens were lovers. Equally, we can’t say that they weren’t because we just don’t have the evidence either way. The assumption that they must have been lovers based only on the DNA and their physical proximity just serves to highlight the bizarre prejudices of Western culture and the way that we deny men and women access to the full range of human experiences.


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I'm a DM wearing, cat owning archivist and medieval historian because some stereotypes should be full on embraced. I've written for Biscuit, Diva and the Upcoming Living History magazine and am working on a book on Irish Goddesses for Wolfenhowle Press.

Siobhan has written 9 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. 10

    I am so ambivalent about this stuff because so many historians seem to have done a precursory reading of Foucault and basically decided that homosexuality was invented by Oscar Wilde and everything before that was just not gay. Which makes me want to be like ‘BUT IT COULD TOTALLY BE GAY’ about everything.
    It also lead to the hilariously telling moment on the outtakes from the show about Frederick the Great on ‘In our time’ where they basically said Frederick couldn’t be gay because homosexuality hadn’t been invented yet/they didn’t identify that way hello have you read Foucault BUT his brother was DEFINITELY gay. Yeah, I’m sure you guys just aren’t uncomfortable with gays being powerful figures in history, it’s totally about the construction of modern sexual identity…

    Anyway, it highlights how our current approach basically requires self-disclosure of queerness by people who didn’t have a shared language with which to communicate such a thing to us. Our reluctance to consider queerness without someone identifying themselves as queer is a historiographical problem that will have to be solved more satisfactorily somehow. Having to essentially come out in order to be considered gay is even more modern than the construction of modern gay identity so, yeah… it’s a problem.

    Anyway all this is to say I am still waiting for a proper mapping of where people were picked up for sodomy charges because I am convinced there was cruising going on in some taverns in Brugues in the middle ages based on the transcripts I have seen and I will not rest until it’s been proven.

    • 3

      This isn’t the domain of historians, though, and as someone who no longer works in but at least still has a degree in Classical Archaeology (the discipline at hand) I can assure you that homosexuality is not overlooked or thought to originate in modern times.

      I would assume it impossible to get through an undergraduate degree without spending a significant amount of time on both pederasty (introducing young boys into manhood through a partly sexual relationship with an “older brother” type figure) and adult male homosexuality (and its social implications in various parts of Classical society). Female homosexuality is trickier and may not be covered at all universities, the topic being somewhat speculative because the upper class men who wrote our history and commissioned much of the material culture that comes down to us from ancient Greece, for example, didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the gynaecum (the Greek upper classes had gender-segregated homes)… or even talking to women it would seem sometimes.

      But, yes, someone remotely involved in the Classics would should know a lot about male homosexuality. If they have a degree, they’ve probably learnt the names of various male-on-male sexual acts at some point. It’s a pretty sex-obsessed discipline in general, whether discussing straight, gay or bisexual behaviour (desire is harder to pinpoint). Identifying a female orgasm and differentiating between a socially acceptable penis and a non-socially acceptable penis in art is undergraduate stuff. My university was extra sex-obsessed, so we had extra “ancient sex” classwork on the MA level covering contraceptives and abortions.

        • 4

          Maybe you did, but your lecturers simply considered it to be non-sexual ecstasy? The backwards head-tilt with mouth partly open especially common to women (maenads or otherwise) in Bacchic scenes was taught to us as orgasmic.

          Fun to note, IF one accepts this interpretation: based only on art I’ve personally seen, it doesn’t seem happen as often in depictions of penetrative sex as it does when women are physically distanced from men/gods/satyrs but considered in touch with their sexuality. 😉

    • 4

      I’m finishing my PhD in late Roman art and archaeology (so… sorry, I hate those Pompeii bastards and their cocky bullshit about having such a pristine site to study 😉 ).
      I don’t think it’s a cursory reading of Foucault, but rather a broader reading of the essentialist/constructivist debate. Queer theory, feminist theory, and even most gaze theory comes out of the essentialist debate (modern people are a suitable parallel for ancient people so it is possible to use contemporary theory trans-historically). Conversely, structuralism, some of body history, and indeed Foucault are on the side of the constructivists (human behavior is period and place specific, not the same across time or space so we cannot use modern theory trans-historically).
      If you read some of the linked articles, it’s not the archaeologists or historians having trouble deciding what to call these two, they are very careful to qualify their statements because making any generalisations about the find will almost definitely bring up some bloke (or blokess? is that a word) dying to make a point on the other side of the debate. It’s the media that’s having a field day.

      As for me I’m a bit of a shit archaeologist even with my broad theoretical background… I’m kind of with Siobhan: ‘why would two people clinging together in the midst of an apocalyptic nightmare mean they were romantically involved?’.

      • 0

        I understanding where you are coming from, but I have to disagree: many, many academics, especially historians, have interpreted Foucault to mean that there could not be any type of queer or even sexual identity before the late 19th c. This became absolute dogma in US academy the late 90s and aughts, and it still persists. Sahar Amer writes about this in her work on medieval Arabic-speaking lesbians; and one of the big guns of sexuality studies, David Halperin, wrote this:

        “It is a matter of considerable irony that Foucault’s influential distinction between the discursive construction of the sodomite and the discursive construction of the homosexual, which had originally been intended to open up a domain of historical inquiry, has now become a major obstacle blocking further research into the rudiments of sexual identity-formation in pre-modern and early modern European societies. Foucault himself would surely have been astonished. Not only was he too good a historian ever to have
        authorized the incautious and implausible claim that no one had ever had a sexual subjectivity, a sexual morphology, or a sexual identity of any kind before the nineteenth century (even if he painstakingly demonstrated that the conditions necessary for
        having a sexuality, a psychosexual orientation in the modern sense, did not in fact obtain until then). His approach to what he called “the history of the present” was also too searching, too experimental, and too open-ended to tolerate converting a heuristic
        analytic distinction into an ill-founded historical dogma, as his more forgetful epigones have not hesitated to do.”

        So a lot of the important historical work in recent decades has been about dismantling the idea that there were no sexual identities before the late 19th c, only sexual acts. See Graham Robb’s work showing that Foucault was wrong and early 19th-century “sodomites” and late 19th-century ‘homosexuals” were more similar than different, or Bernadette Brooten’s fantastic work on Roman female homoeroticism, which proves that not only did the Romans have a concept of sexual orientation, but they believed that your horoscope (the position of the stars at your birth) set it for life.

        Which is not to say that premodern peoples’ sexual identities were exactly the same as ours or map cleanly onto our ideas; those Roman horoscopes with their dozens of sexual orientations (including the class of who your were attracted to, which was as important as gender) are very different from ours, and clearly a lot of people historically, especially outside the West, understood what we would now call transfeminine people and gay men as one single category that got cultural respect.

        But people did have names for all types of queer identities; Sahar Amer has written some fascinating stuff on lesbians in medieval Arabic-speaking world, which not only had a word and identity for women who had sex with women, but often viewed them as neutral, positive, or not deserving punishment (especially compared to women who had sex with men to whom they weren’t married, who were usually badly punished).

        • 0

          I’d be interested in reading more about the Roman horoscopes if you’ve got a reference to that? I spent more time on Greece and ancient Ireland than Rome. I’m with you on the idea that sexual identity didn’t exist pre 19th century being ludicrous, they were different but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

  2. 14

    Like… they were about to be wholly consumed by boiling magma. I’m pretty sure any and all cultural conditioning goes out the window under such circumstances, and even the manliest of ultra-hetero manly men would jump into the nearest human’s arms in the face of the impending horror of such an agonizing death. Give me an entire fucking break.

    Anyway! This article was great and I love how it veered from archaeology into an exploration of historical attitudes towards sexuality. Interesting stuff.

  3. 5

    Thank you for this analysis.

    Like, yeah, maybe they were lovers (bc so many historians tend to be so reluctant to pronounce anyone gay, I am tempted to say that everyone is gay or bi just to spite them, so this reversal of “THEY’RE GAY” is confusing because now I want them to be gay but also you’re basing that off of both nothing and the idea that men can’t touch because it’s gay and like no now I don’t want to say they’re gay because platonic touch exists and is frustrating to not allowed to exist (except to deny specific people are gay)????), maybe they were friends, maybe they were cousins or brothers or father and son, maybe they were strangers who just happened to collapse near each other because of the freaking volcanic ash and it’s not like everyone has the exact same respiratory system and collapsed at the exact same time in Pompei?????

    • 1

      I agree that we know nothing about these people to indicate what (if any) relationship they might have had, but on the family connection, the linked article actually specifically says that the DNA testing shows they weren’t father/son or brothers. That doesn’t eliminate step- or adoption-type relationships of course, but it sounds like the one thing we do know is that they’re not blood relatives.

    • 1

      I was having that exact issue writing this article and I think the same underlying attitude behind pronouncing these men gay is what’s behind the usual insistence that no one is. Because its all about reinforcing heteronormative masculinity and having a token case they can point to to defend against their claim that no one was gay, especially as the men involved are faceless and so they don’t have to connect real humans with actual queerness.

  4. 5

    This is a really great article, and says a lot of the things I’ve been rage-thinking about since this debate was reignited. Also, have some Pompeii graffiti that seems somewhat relevant:

    VIII.2 (in the basilica); 1882: The one who buggers a fire burns his penis

  5. 3

    Totally agree! The media reaction to the scientific testing is really anachronism at it’s finest. That and it makes a good story. Who cares about historical nuances when they can say ‘we have science in our corner’?

  6. 1

    *inarticulate noises of discomfort and incomprehension*

    Media reaction aside, it would be nice if just once a scientist threw some shade instead of entertaining a logical exercise and just said “that’s a dumb question” or “now why would you think that?” to a reporter. Even if there are other folks on the archeology team going “we proved the presence of Gay, everyone, what a wonderful discovery”

  7. 0

    Kinda wondering about the genetic tests. If one of these remains was genetically intersexed could the tests identify intersex chromosome artifacts?

    Just a nerdy question about the studies testing method.

  8. 3

    The pyroclastic flows that buried people alive in the 79CE eruption of Mt Vesuvius was not only at Pompeii but also Herculaneum, which was much closer to the eruption origin. Pyroclastic flows are usually very high temperature and high velocity flows of ash and volcanic gas, and can kill a person instantly (see geology heroes Maurice and Katia Krafft, killed on Mt Unzen). It was initially assumed that these people asphyxiated from being buried alive. However, recently, volcanologists have changed their theory and now they think that these people were killed by the pyroclastic surge – cooked to death instantly.

    My point is, when people die in this way, their bodies contort. So, who knows what these people were actually doing before they died – the contortion is due to rigor mortis.

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/11/101102/pompeii-mount-vesuvius-science-died-instantly-heat-bodies/

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