Ancient History of Cross-Dressing: From Ancient Religions to the Theaters

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Left, Sisters Charlotte and Susan Cushman in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in 1846 (Public Domain); Right, Male Kabuki actor in Japan (CC BY 2.0)

Ancient History of Cross-Dressing: From Ancient Religions to the Theaters

Ephippus, in a surviving fragment of his lost pamphlet depicting the court of Alexander the Great in 324-323 BC, alleges that Alexander liked to cross-dress as the Greek archer-goddess Artemis.  Supposedly, Alexander often appeared in public as Artemis dressed in the Persian garb with a bow and hunting-spear. It is likely that the passage is a libel, possibly to denounce Alexander. As his father Philip had destroyed Epipphus’ home city of Olynthus in 348 BC, Epipphus may not have been too fond of the young king.

Artemis with a hind, better known as "Diana of Versailles". Marble, Roman artwork, Imperial Era (1st-2nd centuries CE).

Artemis with a hind, better known as "Diana of Versailles". Marble, Roman artwork, Imperial Era (1st-2nd centuries CE). (Public Domain)

Epipphus’ choice of slander left room for a wide range of interpretations. Seeing this from a modern perspective, Epipphus’ way to demean Alexander may be the allegation that the mighty king Alexander was a cross-dresser. But, what if Epipphus meant to ridicule Alexander the king for presumptuously impersonating a deity – an activity reserved for priests? This would illustrate what seems to be ancient society’s attitude towards cross-dressing.


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