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The Gallae: Transgender Priestesses Of Ancient Rome
Trans+ History Week Transgender

The Gallae: Transgender Priestesses Of Ancient Rome

The millennia-old history of transgender people can be traced back as far as the Romans to the transgender priestesses, the gallae. This article was produced as official content for the first ever Trans+ History Week, one of QueerAF's launchpad projects.

The modern trans community has found modern ways to express and transgress gender. For some of us, that means using medical treatments and innovations – HRT, surgeries, and the like - that weren’t available in the past. 

But these aren’t what make us trans, nor would their absence revoke our transness. These are simply how some of us express our gender. 

If, like me, you rely on HRT, you may find yourself questioning what your life may have been like had you been born before it was widely available. 

One answer can be found way back on April 14th, 205 BCE. That’s the day the gallae arrived in Rome -Livy 29.11

Who Were The Gallae?

At this point, the Romans were more than a decade into a long war with Carthage, their biggest rival. The Carthaginian general Hannibal was running roughshod across Italy. He’d defeated the Romans in battle after battle, and things were looking pretty dire. 

This was the last real chance anybody had of stopping the spread of Roman dominance in the Mediterranean, and Carthage came pretty close to doing it. 

So the Romans did what many ancients did when they were in a difficult position - they consulted an oracle.

It said they’d be victorious if they brought the great mother goddess Kybele to Rome. She was the mother of Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, and some other gods who didn’t get planets named after them. 

When they brought the stone representing Kybele to Rome, the gallae, her priestesses, came with her. 

Having neutered themselves in a ritual called the Dies Sanguinis – the Day Of Blood – the gallae wore women’s clothes and a feminine hairstyle, and adorned themselves with jewellery and heavy makeup -August. De civ. D. 7.26 

They used a pumice stone to remove the hair on their legs (source: Ov. Ars am. 1.14), and would often wear either a turban or a tiara – sometimes both. (source: Ov. Ars am. 1.14)

They also apparently threw some wild parties. As part of their worship, they’d shriek, pound on drums, clash cymbals, and dance wildly -Lucr. 2.581, Ov. Fast. 4.183

To the average Roman, this was confusing. They couldn’t be men because of the Dies Sanguinis, but they also couldn’t be women because they couldn’t bear children. They ended up living in this liminal space between genders. I bet more than one reader will relate to that. 

So it may not be surprising that a growing number of modern historians, myself included, see the gallae as transgender figures. 

After all, the 4th century CE Roman writer Firmicus Maternus tells us, "They say they are not men, and indeed they aren't; they want to pass as women" -Err. prof. rel. 4.2

It doesn’t get much clearer than that, does it? 

This article's illustration is by Trans+ creative Finn Yvo

🎨 Artwork description, by Finn Yvo

"This is a digital illustration depicting the article, 'The Gallae: Transgender Priestesses of Ancient Rome.' The bright colours and cartoon style are a nod to queer joy and the image itself is a celebration of Trans people past and present."

What’s To Be Done With Them?

The great mother goddess helped the Romans win the war against Carthage, so her gallae did need to be respected. But they transgressed gender norms just a little too much for the Romans’ liking. 

To compromise, the Senate declared that the gallae would be confined to the temple of Cybele, except during festival days. 

They also forbade any Roman citizen from joining their ranks - Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 2.19 

That’s an interesting one. 

Because here’s the thing: societies generally only make laws to stop people from doing things they’d actually want to do. 

Otherwise, why bother making laws? 

So the fact that the Roman Senate banned citizens from becoming gallae seems like evidence that some citizens did want to become gallae. 

And why would a citizen want to become a galla? 

What might draw a young Roman to toss aside any semblance of masculinity and become almost entirely removed from Roman daily life outside of a single annual festival? 

Some writers may describe them as simply having heard the call of the great mother goddess. But there were plenty of other ways for a Roman man to have expressed his religious devotion that didn’t involve living as a woman. 

Besides, anyone who became a galla would be sacrificing a lot. 

In fact, Roman legal precedent from the 1st century CE says the gallae couldn’t inherit property. Roman law was highly gendered, and the laws of inheritance were different depending on whether you were a man or a woman. In this context, the gallae were neither men nor women, but a secret third thing - Val. Max. 7.6

And yes, dear reader – that does mean the gallae were a legally recognized third gender in Roman society. 

There is also little evidence that gallae had any connection with their birth families. 

So what would anybody have gained from being a galla? 

They’d have gained an opportunity to live a life more in line with their gender, and in a community that supported them, in exchange for an extremely marginalised social role. 

Sound familiar? 

If there’s one thing queers are good at, it’s building a sense of community and belonging. That’s true today, and it was true in ancient Rome. 

What can we learn from this history?

Trans people have always existed, but the way we express our transness is dictated by the culture in which we live. 

We all discover our transness in different ways, but if you lived 2,200 years ago, and you saw the parade of gallae walking through your city, it might have awakened some feelings in you that you’d spent your life trying to suppress. 

There are plenty of trans-y stories from the ancient Mediterranean, but the gallae are my favourite. 

The Scythian enarei priestesses and Elagabalus, for example, have a certain ambiguity to them, but the gallae are about as blatantly trans as you can get. The ‘phobes’ can claim being trans is a new thing all they want, but they’re wrong. The gallae are just one of many examples. 

No matter what our world looks like, trans people have always found ways to express ourselves and live our lives the way we see fit. And we’ll continue to do so for as long as humanity endures. 

We have always existed, and we always will. 

This article was one part of a series of official content produced for the first-ever Trans+ History Week. During the week we invested in, mentored and published over 30 Trans+ creatives from the UK, US and Europe. Want more of the history lesson you never had? This is for you