Sexuality in ancient Rome
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Sexuality in ancient Rome generally lacked the modern categories of "heterosexual" or "homosexual." Instead, the differentiating characteristic was activity versus passivity, or penetrating versus penetrated.
Male Sexuality Romans thought that men should be the active participant in all forms of love. Male passivity symbolized a loss of manliness, the most prized Roman virtue. This is in stark contrast to the Pederasty in ancient Greece, in which young boys became men through relations with adult males. It was socially and legally acceptable for Roman men to have sex with both female and male prostitutes as well as young slaves, as long as the Roman man was the active partner. Laws such as the Lex Scantina, Lex Iulia, and Lex Iulia de vi publica regulated against homosexual love between free men and boys, but these laws were frequently violated and rarely enforced, with men performing the passive role and vice versa. If the laws were ever enforced, the partner punished would be the passive male, not the active male. A man who liked to be penetrated was called "pathic", roughly translated as "bottom" in modern sex terminology, and was considered to be weak and feminine.
Female Sexuality Women were not granted freedom of sexuality. Men considered female homosexuality disgusting and dangerous. A woman who wanted to be an active partner in intercourse was a "tribade" (the meaning of which has now changed).
Homosexuality in Literature Few accounts of love between women exist through the eyes of women, so we only know the viewpoint of Roman men. Multiple ancient Roman authors wrote about love affairs between men, including Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. Catullus wrote of his love for the young man Juventius, while Tibullus dedicated two elegies to his lover Marathus and wrote particularly about how devastated he was that Marathus had left him for a woman.
Medicine and sexuality
Hippocrates’ ideas laid the foundation for medical ideas about women for centuries onward, from the Romans to the Victorians. On the Diseases of Virgins, a work in the Hippocratic Corpus, addresses the virgins’ disease, or morbus virgineus, an illness that afflicted parthenoi. Symptoms included poor coloring, swelling, difficulty breathing, palpitations, headaches, and others, most significantly, cessation of menstruation. The book explains that this sickness is caused by the failure of a woman of appropriate age to marry. Extra blood cannot escape because the necessary opening is closed, and it fills the body, clogging it and making a woman ill. The woman is cured when the blood finds its outlet – that is when she marries and loses her virginity. Pregnancy is the cure. The idea that virgins succumb to this illness because their wombs are not being used for the purpose they were intended and it is this disuse that makes them ill supports the cultural values of Greek society, emphasizing the weakness of women and their narrow purpose. This, along with the many supposed illnesses that could befall virgins, encouraged them to marry and bear children.
Romans thought that men should be the active participant in all forms of sexual activity. Male passivity symbolized a loss of control, the most prized Roman virtue. It was socially and legally acceptable for Roman men to have sex with both female and male prostitutes as well as slaves, as long as the Roman man was the active partner. Laws such as the Lex Scantinia, Lex Iulia, and Lex Iulia de vi publica regulated against same-sex activities among free-born males, Lex Scantinia as well as especially legislations for the Roman military put capital punishments upon same-sex activities. A man who liked to be penetrated was called pathicus or cinaedus, roughly translated as “bottom” in modern sex terminology, and was considered to be weak and feminine.
However, these laws were circumvented to an unknown extent with slaves and barbarians to whom these laws did not extend as they were not considered human beings, with men performing the passive role and vice versa, even though any Roman male allowing himself to be penetrated was looked down upon. Slaves were regarded as res, as things, and could be freely used for any activity otherwise illegal, even though, unlike opposite-sex activities, same-sex activities with slaves were not encouraged as a form of sexual pleasure. In fact, these were rather regarded as punishment for bad slaves, inherently identical to beatings.
James C. Thompson, author and history teacher, states that “adultery in Rome, as elsewhere in the Ancient World, was defined as sexual activity between a married woman and a man not her husband.” Thomas A.J. McGinn, author and professor at Vanderbilt University, also defines adultery as “the sexual offense committed [by a man] with a non-exempt married woman.” Despite the rather simple definition of adultery in many cases the conditions under which the act takes place play an important role. For instance “adultery by a low class woman was not considered a problem, while it was a serious crime by all other women.” The division of classes decided how important the situation was.
The punishment for adultery varied depending on the situation. In most situations the “criminal penalties were ordained for the adulterous female spouse and her lover. These were chiefly patrimonial in nature, dictating the confiscation of one-half of the adulterer’s property, one third of the woman’s, as well as one-half her dowry”. (McGinn, Concubinage and the Lex Iulia on Adultery) The allowed punishment at times was “a husband might kill his wife if he caught her committing adultery; he was certainly required to divorce her”. The fact that the family is being run by the father or eldest male is important. The implementation of punishment would be the responsibility of the eldest male or the father. In most cases if death was not the penalty then the “convicted women were forbidden to remarry”.
The ultimate goal of these laws was to morally clean up Rome and to keep the social classes intact. McGinn states that “it is likely that the Augustan laws on adultery and marriage indirectly encouraged the rise of respectable concubine as an institution recognized in its own right”.
Concubinage (Latin: contubernium; concubine=concubina, considered milder than paelex) was the institution practiced in ancient Rome that allowed men to enter into certain illegal relationships without repercussions, with the exception of involvement with prostitutes. This de facto polygamy – for Roman citizens could not legally marry or cohabit with a concubine while also having a legal wife – was “tolerated to the degree that it did not threaten the religious and legal integrity of the family”. (Grimal, Love in Ancient Rome) The title of concubine was not considered derogatory (as it may be considered today) in ancient Rome, and was often inscribed on tombstones.
The institution of concubinage served a practical function in ancient Rome, providing the only legalized sexual relationships outside of marriage; other extramarital relations were considered unlawful, most notably prostitution. Emperor Augustus’ Leges Juliae gave the first legal recognition of concubinage, defining it as cohabitation without marital status. Concubinage came to define many relationships and marriages considered unsuitable under Roman law, such a senator’s desire to marry a freedwoman, or his cohabitation with a former prostitute. While a man could live in concubinage with any woman of his choice rather than marrying her, he was compelled to give notice to authorities. This type of cohabitation varied little from actual marriage, except that heirs from this union were not considered legitimate. Often this was the reason that men of high rank would live with a woman in concubinage after the death of their first wife, so that the claims of their children from this first marriage would not be challenged by the children from this later union.
Concerning the difference between a concubine and a wife, the jurist Julius Paulus wrote in his Opinions that “a concubine differs from a wife only in the regard in which she is held,” meaning that a concubine was not considered a social equal to her patron, as his wife was. While the official Roman law declared that a man could not have a concubine at the same time he had a wife, there are various notable occurrences of this, including the famous cases of the emperors Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and Vespasian. Suetonius wrote that Augustus “put Scribonia [his second wife] away because she was too free in complaining about the influence of his concubine”. (Kiefer, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome) Often appeals to the emperor would be made through their concubines in return for payment.
Concubines widely failed to hail much protection under law, aside the legal recognition of their social stature. They largely relied upon their patrons to provide for them. Early Roman law sought to differentiate between the status of concubinage and legal marriage, as demonstrated in a law attributed to Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, circa 716-673 BCE: “A concubine shall not touch the altar of Juno. If she touches it, she shall sacrifice, with her hair unbound, a ewe lamb to Juno”; this fragment gives evidence that concubines existed early in the Roman monarchy, but also notes the banning of their involvement in the worship of Juno, the goddess of marriage. Later the jurist Ulpian wrote on the Lex Julia et Papia, “Only those women with whom intercourse is not unlawful can be kept in concubinage without the fear of committing a crime”.
Prostitutes in ancient Rome were symbols of shame. Their signal lack of reputation was reflected in the law, which, in the Late Republic and early Principate, classified them as infames (translates to lacking in reputation). The fragmentary legal sources regarding prostitution are primarily found in Justinian’s Digest which was compiled in the early 6th century.
It is attested that prostitutes were not allowed to speak on behalf of others in a court of law. Generally they were also forbidden to bring accusations against others. They were debarred from standing for election to magistracies. Their bodies may have been beaten, mutilated, or violated with impunity.
It is now clear that prostitute status had to be legally registered. Despite the probable existence of such a register of prostitutes, scholars often suggest that the boundary between prostitutes and respectable women was often unclear. For example, the law branded infamy on "not only a woman who practices prostitution, but also one who has formerly done so, even though she has ceased to act in this manner; for the disgrace is not removed even if the practice is subsequently discontinued”.
In ancient Rome prostitutes were regarded as infames. Infamy, which translates to lacking in reputation, was an important cultural tool for the regulation of good behavior. Infamia was the formal loss of good reputation (fama). The loss of reputation through shameful behavior, such as prostitution, meant a legal stigma that deprived citizens of many of their legal privileges. Fear of disgrace in the eyes of the community was clearly an important force in the regulation of behavior in ancient Rome.
The rights and wrongs of sexual behavior are a prominent theme of new comedy. One of the foundational premises of many plots is the sharp distinction between two different kinds of female: the well-brought up freeborn virgin who is marriageable, and the non-citizen prostitute who is not. Often a plot is premised on the difficulty that arises when the object of a young man’s romantic and marital interest appears to belong to the non-citizen prostitute, and is resolved when it is revealed in fact the woman is not a non-citizen prostitute but actually a freeborn virgin. Much of the comedy’s dramatic tension comes from the misunderstanding of a woman’s status. Usually she is thought to be a slave and a prostitute, but turns out to be chaste and freeborn. The typical plot of comedies was used to reinforce the stigmas attached to prostitutes, and how men should not allow themselves to be tempted by them and to marry chaste freeborn women. The comedies also reflect the idea that most prostitutes were slaves, freedwomen, or foreign. The idea of a Roman citizen freeborn woman from a well-to-do family practicing prostitution was abominable.
The female prostitute was a suggestive character in ancient Roman literature. She was often invoked as a metaphor for corrupt literary style. Prostitutes were noticed by their clothing. They were attested to have worn gaudy dresses made from transparent silk. They were also distinguished for wearing a toga, which was typically fashioned by male Roman citizens. Therefore it has been claimed that the female prostitute was antithetical to the male Roman citizen. For many Roman writers, prostitution represented the most degrading form of female existence imaginable. Prostitutes as public figures often represented the depths of impurity. Plautus in the Curculio claimed that the prostitute was the via publica — what everyone treads underfoot. Roman writers often associated prostititues with dirt, which even further reflected their lowly status.
Pimps in ancient Rome were subject to infamia as well. Pimping was the act of gaining a profit off of a prostitute’s action. This may be done by managing the prostitute, soliciting customers, or owning a brothel. These types of associations with prostitution were looked down upon in Roman society and stigmatized as well. The stigmas attached to pimps was clearly reflected in Roman law: “The occupation of a pimp is not less disgraceful than the practice of prostitution," “The crime of pimping is included in the Julian laws of adultery, as a penalty has been preserved against a husband who profits pecuniarily by the adultery of his wife”.
Although there is generally a common misunderstanding of Roman society as overtly sexual, due in part to artistic and literary depictions of graphic sexual interaction and activity, the Romans did in fact live with the restriction of moral standards and sexual taboos even before the emergence of Christianity. What was considered socially acceptable in regard to sexuality most likely developed around the Romans’ marriage customs and views and was strongly influenced by their economic and political systems as well. For the sake of defining property rights and the legitimacy of children, marriage was a crucial unit in society, but it was not necessarily considered a sacred institution from a moral or religious perspective. Though marriages were held to rather rigid legal standards, the intimate activities of a husband and wife were not as strict, and it was common and acceptable for a husband to seek sexual satisfaction from others beside his wife. Women, however, as indicated on traditional Roman epitaphs, were expected to respect the rules of fides marita and remain faithful to their husbands. There is even evidence that Octavian, shortly after he became emperor, enacted laws that made adultery a criminal offense for women.
In Roman satirical and medical texts, female genitalia and menstruation are commonly discussed in a negative manner; there is in elegiac texts some mention of role reversal, in which a female adopts a dominant sexual role, but critical responses to these seem to have indicated a taboo encompassing sexual role reversal between males and females. Similarly, to specific sexual acts there applied a standard based on the roles involved. To be penetrated or to receive oral sex was considered a passive role in sexual activity, which held some degree of degradation. Oral sex itself was somewhat controversial in Roman society, or at least more so than anal sex or sex between two males. There is little information on the prevalence of homosexual sex between Roman females, but evidence suggests that there was a much stronger taboo surrounding sex between two women than between two men.
Restrictions on sexuality, specifically female sexuality, varied between social classes; women of lower social status, as well as slaves, were permitted greater sexual freedom and held to less rigid standards than those of the upper classes. However, there is evidence of acceptable sexual practices for all Romans, including the use of aphrodisiacs, or “love potions,” for both men and women. There is also evidence suggesting that sex during pregnancy was socially acceptable, as mentioned in an account implying Augustus’s daughter Julia used her pregnancies as an opportunity to have sex with men other than her husband.
Literature and homosexuality
Few accounts of love between women exist through the eyes of women, so we only know the viewpoint of Roman men. Women were not granted freedom of sexuality because men considered female homosexuality disgusting and dangerous. A woman who wanted to be an active partner or "top" in intercourse was a "tribade," the meaning of which has now changed. Multiple ancient Roman authors wrote about love affairs between men, including Tibullus (1.4, 1.8, 1.9), Propertius (Elegies 4.2), Lucretius (De Re. Nat. 4.1052-6), Virgil (Eclogues 2), Horace (Odes 1.4), and Ovid (Meta. 10.155ff). Catullus wrote of his love for the young man Juventius (Carmina 81), while Tibullus dedicated two elegies to his lover Marathus and wrote particularly about how devastated he was that Marathus had left him for a woman.
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- Radford, R. La prostitution féminine dans la Rome antique, Morrisville, Lulu, 2007. 168 p. ISBN: 978-1-4303-1158-4.
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- Thomas A.J. McGinn. The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.
- Homosexuality in ancient Rome
- History of human sexuality
- Homosexuality in ancient Greece