Sexuality in Ancient Rome

Art, literature, and inscriptions provide evidence of ancient Rome’s sexual attitudes and habits. It is also evident in archaeological relics such as erotic items and architecture.

Moreover, it has been suggested that “total sexual license” was a feature of ancient Rome. 

According to Verstraete and Provençal, this viewpoint was merely a Christian assessment.

They wrote, “The sexuality of the Romans has never had great publicity in the West since the emergence of Christianity.” 

Thus, it is associated with sexual license and abuse in the popular consciousness and society. 

However, the mos maiorum, or ancient social norms that influenced public, private, and military life, did not eliminate sexuality as a concern. 

Together in the Republican and Imperial periods, pudor, or “shame, modesty,” was a controlling force in behavior, as were legal restrictions on specific sexual crimes. 

The censors—public authorities who evaluated an individual’s social rank—had the authority to remove citizens from the senatorial or equestrian order for sexual impropriety, and they did so occasionally. 

Not to mention, in patriarchal Roman society, masculinity was based on the ability to manage oneself and people of lower status, not just in battle and politics but also in sexual relations. 

Additionally, the virtus, or “virtue,” was an ardent masculine ideal of self-discipline. It is related to the Latin word vir, which means “man.” 

Likewise, pudicitia, commonly translated as chastity or modesty, was the equivalent ideal for a woman.

But it was a more positive, even competitive personal attribute that demonstrated both her attractiveness and self-control.

Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Sexual Attitude in Ancient Rome 

Satyr and nymph, mythological symbols of sexuality, from a bedroom in Pompeii
Satyr and nymph, symbols of sexuality, from a bedroom in Pompeii   

Some sexual views and actions in ancient Roman civilization were notably different from those in later Western societies.

Roman religion emphasized sexuality as a part of state wealth. 

People also could turn to private religious practice or “magic” to improve their erotic lives or reproductive health. 

Similarly, prostitution was legal, open to the public, and ubiquitous. Besides, “pornographic” paintings were found in the art collections of well-to-do upper-class families. 

In like manner, men’s sexual attraction to teen-aged youths of both sexes was regarded as natural and unremarkable.

Pederasty was also tolerated as long as the younger male partner was not a freeborn Roman.

Furthermore, “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were not the fundamental dichotomies in Roman thinking on sexuality. There is no Latin terminology for these concepts either. 

No moral condemnation was leveled at the guy who engaged in sex acts with either women or men of inferior standing, as long as his actions revealed no flaws or excesses.

He should also not infringe on the rights and prerogatives of his masculine peers. 

Similarly, while perceived effeminacy was condemned, particularly in political language, sex in restraint with male prostitutes or enslaved people was not considered immoral or corrosive.

It was so as long as the male citizen took the active rather than the receptive role. 

Hypersexuality, on the other hand, was ethically and medically condemned in both men and women. Moreover, women were subjected to a harsher moral code. 

Although same-sex relationships between women are infrequently documented, women’s sexuality is loathed throughout Latin literature.

The Romans, in general, had more fluid gender categories than the ancient Greeks. 

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Likewise, a late-twentieth-century paradigm examined Roman sexuality through the lens of a “penetrator–penetrated” binary model.

However, this approach has limits, particularly in terms of sexual expressions among individual Romans. 

Even the term “sexuality” has been questioned in relation to ancient Roman society.

But in the absence of another title for “the cultural interpretation of sensual experience,” it is still employed.

Transvestism, Gender Roles and Determinants of Sexuality in Ancient Rome 

Painting of Threesome in a boat
Painting of Threesome in a boat

During the Republic, a Roman citizen’s civic Liberty (Libertas) was characterized in part by the right to keep his body free from physical compulsion.

The notion included both corporal punishment and sexual abuse.  

Among the active virtues was a virtue, or “valor.” This notion was regarded as something that made a man most fully a man (vir).  

Moreover, Roman ideas of masculinity were thus based on taking an active role. This idea was also the prime direction of male sexual activity for Romans. 

Likewise, the drive to action could be most vividly expressed in a dominating ideal that represents the hierarchy of Roman patriarchal society.

As such, the “conquest attitude” was a component of a “cult of virility” that impacted Roman homosexual activities in particular. 

Moreover, an emphasis on dominance led scholars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to perceive gestures of Roman male sexuality in aspects of a “penetrator-penetrated” binary model.

To elaborate, allowing himself to be penetrated jeopardized both the male’s liberty as a free citizen and his sexual integrity. 

In other words, a freeborn Roman man was expected and excusable to crave sex with both male and female partners as long as he took the dominant role. 

Likewise, tolerable artifacts of desire were women of any legal and social prestige, male prostitutes, or enslaved men.

But sexual practices outside marriage were to be restricted to enslaved people and prostitutes, or, less frequently, a concubine or “kept woman.”

Similarly, populares were seen as defenders of the people and were frequently referred to as Rome’s “democratic” party.

In contrast, the optimates were seen as a conservative elite of aristocrats and were accused of effeminacy. 

During the end years of the Roman Republic, the popularists Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), and Clodius Pulcher, as well as the Catilinarian conspirators, were all mocked as effeminate. 

They were seen as excessively groomed, too-good-looking men who might be the recipient of sex from other males.

Simultaneously, they were also accused of being womanizers or possessing devastating sex appeal.

Additionally, cross-dressing also exists in Roman literature and art as a mythological motif. A popular narrative is that of Hercules and Omphale switching roles and attire.

Roman literature also depicted cross-dressing as the ecclesiastical investiture, and it was infrequently or ambiguously presented as transvestic fetishism. 

Not to mention, gender ambiguity was also a feature of the Galli priests of the goddess Cybele. Their ritual dress comprised women’s garments. 

Because they were supposed to be castrated in the emulation of Attis, they are also sometimes regarded as a transgender priesthood. 

Catullus explores the difficulties of gender identification in Cybele’s religion and the Attis story in Carmen 63, one of his longest poems.

Hermaphroditism and Androgyny in Ancient Rome 

Hermaphroditus struggles with a satyr, fresco from Pompeii
Hermaphroditus struggles with a satyr, fresco from Pompeii

In modern English, the term “hermaphrodite” is used in biology but has negative connotations when referring to those born with physical traits of both sexes.

But, in antiquity, the image of the so-called hermaphrodite was a prominent focus of gender identity concerns.

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In ancient Rome, the hermaphrodite was a “violation of societal boundaries, particularly those as crucial to daily existence as male and female.” 

A hermaphroditic birth was considered a prodigium in the old Roman religion. It was an occurrence that signaled a disruption in the pax deorum, Rome’s pact with the gods.

As such, a hermaphrodite had to be classified as either male or female under Roman law. No third gender was recognized as a legal category.

Likewise, in a mythical Roman legend, Hermaphroditus was a lovely youngster who was the son of Hermes (Roman Mercury) and Aphrodite (Venus).

He had been fostered by nymphs, like many other divine beings and heroes. But proof that he personally earned cult devotion among the Greeks is scant.

Hermaphroditus depictions were especially popular among the Romans. The dramatic scene in paintings frequently causes the viewer to “double-take” or reflect the notion of sexual frustration. 

Hermaphroditus is also frequently seen with one of the fairies satyr, a figure of bestial sexuality infamous for forcing an unwary or sometimes sleeping victim to non-consensual intercourse. 

The satyr in scenarios with Hermaphroditus is also usually shown as being astonished or horrified.

Similarly, Macrobius also mentions a masculine form of “Venus” (Aphrodite), who was worshiped in Cyprus. She dressed in women’s attire and had a beard and male genitals. 

Worshippers of the deity were also cross-dressing. Men wore women’s garments, and women wore men’s. 

Laevius, a Latin poet, also wrote of worshiping “nurturing Venus,” whether female or masculine (sive Femina sive mas). Aphroditos was another name for the figure. 

In the attitude anasyrmene, she is depicted from the Greek verb anasyromai, “to pull up one’s garments,” in various surviving examples of Greek and Roman sculpture

The love goddess raises her robes to display her masculine attribute, male genitalia, a gesture with apotropaic or magical power in the past.

The Narrative of Male and Female Sexuality in Ancient Rome 

The lioness position
The lioness position

Romans viewed female sexuality as one of the foundations for social order and success. It was so because of the Roman priority on family. 

Female citizens were expected to undertake their sexuality within marriage. Females rewarded them for their sexual fidelity (pudicitia) and fecundity. 

Augustus also bestowed special honors and privileges on women who gave birth to three children.

Likewise, Ancient Romans viewed the discipline of female sexuality as important for state stability. 

This notion is exemplified most dramatically by the Vestal virgins and their utter and absolute importance of virginity.

A Vestal who broke her pledge was encased alive in a procedure resembling a Roman funeral. Her lover was killed. 

In crisis situations for the Republic, female sexuality, whether disordered or exemplary, frequently has an impact on state religion. Augustus’ moral legislation was also centered on exploiting women’s desires.

As with men, free women who exhibited themselves sexually, such as prostitutes and performers, or who made themselves available to anybody were denied legal safeguards and social respectability.

Nevertheless, Roman men were allowed to have intercourse with lower-status males without fear of losing their masculinity or even enhancing it. 

Those who adopted the receiving role in sex acts, also known as the “passive” or “submissive” role, were regarded as weak and effeminate, regardless of their partner’s sex.

But having sex with males in the active position was proof of one’s masculinity.

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Although Roman law did not acknowledge marriages between two males, some male partners celebrated traditional marriage rites throughout the early Imperial period.

Apart from steps to protect citizens’ liberty, however, the prosecution of homosexuality as a general criminal began in the third century. Male prostitution was prohibited by Philip the Arab, a Christian sympathizer. 

Likewise, passive homosexuality was also punishable by burning under the Christian Empire by the end of the fourth century.

The punishment for a “male coupling like a woman” under the Theodosian Code was “death by the sword.”

Similarly, hetairistria (“courtesan” or “companion”), tribas, and Lesbia are Greek words for a woman who loves intercourse with another woman. 

Latin words for such also include loanword tribas, fricatrix (“she who rubs”), and virago. In the Roman literature of the Republic and early Principate, however, references to sex between women are rare.

Nonetheless, sources for same-sex encounters among women are more available throughout the Roman Imperial age. 

Many Roman writers considered this notion more decadent than the Republican period.

It was seen in forms of love charms, medical writing, writings on astrology, dream interpretation, and other sources.

Sex and Marriage in Ancient Roman Society

A groom encourages his demure bride while a servant looks on
A groom encourages his demure bride while a servant looks on

Because males could have sexual encounters with relative impunity outside of marriage, historians commonly claimed that pleasurable sex was not an obligation of Roman marriage. 

Nonetheless, sexual intimacy between a husband and wife was a private topic that was rarely discussed in the literature.

However, the epithalamium, a type of poetry that celebrated a wedding, was an exception. 

In like manner, although it was considered a source of pride for a woman to be univira, or to have only married once, there was no stigma linked to divorce. 

Remarrying quickly after a divorce or the death of a husband was normal, even expected, among the Roman elite. This was because marriage was regarded as right and natural for adults.

Similarly, although widows were typically expected to wait ten months before remarrying, a pregnant lady was not forbidden from accepting a new husband. 

She could do so as long as the paternity of her child was not in question for legal reasons.

If a first marriage ended in divorce, women could appear to have had more influence in arranging successive marriages. 

As such, while having children was the major objective of marriage, other social and familial relationships were strengthened.

It included personal friendship and sexual satisfaction between husband and wife, as seen by marriages relating to women past childbearing age.

Conclusion 

Sex, sexuality, and gender norms remain a serious issue in today’s political and social landscape. These subjects garner discussions that center on a variety of crucial issues. 

From freedom of expression to comfort, biology, and culture, among many others, the narrative of sex, sexuality, and gender includes a vast array of branches that are too many to list all together.  

However, the existence of these concerns is not new, as each society must build its own norms and mores about these issues. 

As such, the classical Greco-Roman culture that emerged throughout the western Mediterranean was counted among the most significant cultures to impact the creation of current western civilizations.

Their perspectives on these topics are no different either.

While nothing today fully matches the classical viewpoints, it is still necessary to trace the origins of these opinions in order to follow their progression to the modern notions that exist today.  

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