Sex & Sexuality in Ancient Rome

Sex is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. —Marcus Aurelius

In Rome, a woman had no legal identity other than as a man’s daughter or wife, entirely subjected first to her father and then to her husband, who was entitled to beat her if he felt that she had overstepped her mark. Although women from good families were taught to read and write, the vast majority did not receive any formal education. They could not vote or take up any formal role such as magistrate or soldier, and were effectively confined to running the home and having children. Almost every woman came under pressure to bare a healthy son who would survive into adulthood to inherit his father’s estate, after which the widowed woman could well find herself destitute. There were, of course, a few exceptional women, and many if not most women exerted an important influence over their husbands, sons, and brothers—even when, as with Agrippina the Younger, these happened to be emperors.

Both women and men, but especially women, were supposed to uphold pudicitia, a complex virtue that may be translated as restraint or chastity. A woman with a high degree of pudicitia, that is, a univira or ‘one-man’ woman, would seek in particular to appear modest and to limit her social interaction with men other than her husband and male relatives. At the same time, a divorced woman did not suffer stigma; in the upper classes, it was common and even expected for a divorced or widowed woman to remarry. Pudicitia symbolized reason and goodness, whereas impudicitia—that is, shamelessness and sexual vice (struprum or ‘sex crime’)—symbolized chaos and a loss of control. A univira woman was held in high esteem and even idealized, with Augustus going so far as to enact a programme of legislation to promote the notion and its observance. Livy in particular upheld the legendary figure of Lucretia as the epitome of pudicitia, and it is possible that her rape and subsequent suicide are not so much historical fact as an allegorical tale constructed both to uphold Roman values and to account for the fall of the monarchy and birth of the Republic. Other writers and thinkers to have pored over the concept of pudicitia include Valerius Maximus, Cicero, Tacitus, and Tertullian.

All this is not to say that the Romans were in any way prude, or, indeed, that they never lost sight of their high ideals. Later Christians may have exaggerated their degree of depravity, but it is certainly true that they had highly ambivalent attitudes to sex. In particular, it was socially acceptable and even expected for freeborn men to have extramarital sex with both female and male partners, especially adolescents, provided they (1) exercised moderation, (2) adopted the dominating role, and (3) confined their activities to slaves and prostitutes or, less commonly, a concubine or ‘kept woman’. As the property of another freeborn man, married or marriageable women and young male citizens were strictly off-limits. Musonius criticized the double standard that granted men greater sexual freedom than women, arguing that, if men are to presume to exercise control over women, they ought to exercise even greater control over themselves. He maintained that, even within marriage, sex should be undertaken as an expression of affection and for procreation, and not for ‘bare pleasure’.

Vestal virgin

The Romans sought in particular to control female sexuality because they thought of it as the basis of the family and, by extension, of social order and prosperity. These notions are epitomized by the cult of Venus, the mother of Aeneas and so of the Roman people, and, of course, by the absolute virginity of the Vestals, who would be buried alive if convicted of fornication. Any act that violated a Vestal’s vow of chastity constituted an act of religious impurity (incestum) and thereby also violated Rome’s treaty with the gods, the pax deorum. Roman religion very much reflected and regulated sexual mores, with the male-female duality enshrined in the pairings of the 12 Dii Consentes or major deities (the Roman equivalent of the Olympian gods of the Greeks): Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta, and Mercury-Ceres. Many Roman religious festivals incorporated an important element of sexuality, for example, the Floralia, which marked the renewal of the cycle of life with, amongst others, nude dancing by prostitutes, and the Lupercalia, which culminated in a fertility rite.

In addition to their other religious and ceremonial duties, the Vestal Virgins tended the cult of the fascinus populi Romani, the sacred image of the divine phallus and male counterpart of the hearth of Vesta. Like the Palladium, Lares, and Penates of Troy and the eternal fire, the fascinus populi Romani assured the ascendency and continuity of the state. Similarly, during the Liberalia or festival of Liber Pater (another name for Bacchus), devotees carted a large phallus throughout the countryside to bring fertility to the land and people and to protect the crops from evil, after which a virtuous matron placed a wreath around the phallus. Smaller talismans in the form of a penis and testes, often winged, sometimes even in gold, invoked the protection of the god Fascinus against the evil eye. These charms, or fascini, were extremely common, either emblazoned onto various objects or worn as a ring or amulet, especially but not exclusively by infants, boys, and soldiers.

A freeborn man’s libertas or political liberty manifested itself, amongst others, in the mastery of his own body, and his adoption of a passive or submissive sexual role implied servility and a loss of virility. Homosexual behaviour amongst soldiers not only violated the decorum against intercourse with another freeborn man, but also compromised the penetrated soldier’s sexual and therefore military dominance, with rape and penetration the symbols (and sometimes also the realities) of military defeat. According to Polybius, a Greek historian of the 2nd century BC, a soldier who had been penetrated could have attracted the ultimate penalty of fustuarium or cudgelling to death. The Latin language does not have a strict equivalent for the noun ‘homosexual’, which is a recent coinage and concept; however, a minority of men did, then as today, express a clear same-sex preference or orientation.

Most extramarital and same-sex activity took place with slaves and prostitutes. Slaves were regarded as property, and lacked the legal standing that protected a citizen’s body. A freeman who forced a slave into having sex could not be charged with rape, but only under laws relating to property damage, and then only by the slave’s owner. Prostitution was both legal and tolerated, and common, often in brothels or in the fornices (arcade dens) under the arches of the circus. Most prostitutes were slaves or freedwomen. By becoming a prostitute, a freeborn person suffered infamia (loss of esteem or reputation) and became an infamis, losing her or his social and legal standing. Other occupations to suffer from infamia—a concept that still retains some currency in the Roman Catholic Church—included not only pimps but also entertainers such as actors and dancers, and gladiators. Members of these groups, which had in common the pleasuring of others, could be subjected to violence and even killed with relative impunity.

Wall painting from a lunar (brothel) in Pompeii

A man who was anally penetrated was perceived as taking on a woman’s role, but a woman who was anally penetrated was perceived as taking on a boy’s role. When his wife offered him anal sex to encourage his fidelity, the poet Martial tauntingly replied that anal sex with boys was superior to anal sex with women. Given that men could and often did indulge in extramarital sex, it has sometimes been assumed that Roman marriage did not presuppose any sexual attraction, let alone passion. At the same time, the houses and bedrooms of the nobility were often decorated with erotic scenes ranging from elegant amorous dalliance to explicit pornography. Suetonius reported that Horace had been alleged to have a mirrored room for sex, and that the emperor Tiberius stocked his bedrooms with sex manuals by the Greek poetess Elephantis. In Ancient Rome as in Victorian England, the opposites of virtue and pleasure often existed side by side, the one exposed in the public arena, the other dissimulated in the shades of night. And so, according to Seneca,

Virtue you will find in the temple, in the forum, in the senate house, standing before the city walls, dusty and sunburnt, her hands rough; pleasure you will most often find lurking around the baths and sweating rooms, and places that fear the police, in search of darkness, soft, effete, reeking of wine and perfume, pallid or else painted and made up with cosmetics like a corpse.

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