Sexuality in ancient Rome  

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Casta est quam nemo rogavit. --Ovid from the Amores

So love with phantoms cheats our longing eyes,
Which hourly seeing never satisfies;
Our hands pull nothing from the parts they strain,
But wander o’er the lovely limbs in vain:
Nor when the youthful pair more closely join,
When hands in hands they lock, and thighs in thighs they twine,
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They gripe, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to t’other’s heart –
In vain; they only cruise about the coast,
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost.
De rerum natura, tr. Dryden [...]

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Sexual attitudes and behaviors in ancient Rome are indicated by Roman art, literature and inscriptions, and to a lesser extent by archaeological remains such as erotic artifacts and architecture. It has sometimes been erroneously assumed that "unlimited sexual license" was characteristic of ancient Rome (Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity).

However, sexuality was not excluded as a concern of the mos maiorum, the traditional social norms that affected public, private, and military life. Pudor, "shame, modesty", was a regulating factor in behavior, as were legal strictures on certain sexual transgressions in both the Republican and Imperial periods. The censors were public officials who determined the social rank of individuals and would, on occasion, remove citizens from the senatorial or equestrian order for sexual misconduct. The mid-20th-century sexuality theorist Michel Foucault regarded sex throughout the Greco-Roman world as governed by restraint and the art of managing sexual pleasure.

Roman society was patriarchal (see paterfamilias), and masculinity was premised on a capacity for governing oneself and others of lower status, not only in war and politics, but also in bed. "Virtue" (virtus), related to the Latin word for "man", vir, was an active masculine ideal of self-discipline. The corresponding ideal for a woman was pudicitia, often translated as chastity or modesty, but a more positive and even competitive personal quality that displayed both her attractiveness and self-control. Roman women of the upper classes were expected to be well-educated, strong of character, and active in maintaining their family's standing in society. But with extremely few exceptions, surviving Latin literature preserves the voices only of educated male Romans on the subject of sexuality. While visual art was created by those of lower social status and of a greater range of ethnicity, it was commissioned by people wealthy enough to afford it, including in the Imperial era former slaves, and was tailored to their taste and inclinations.

Some sexual attitudes and behaviors in ancient Roman culture differ markedly from those in later Western societies. Roman religion supported sexuality as an aspect of prosperity for the state, and individuals might turn to private religious practice or "magic" for improving their erotic lives or reproductive health. Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. "Pornographic" paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upperclass households. It was considered natural and unremarkable for adult males to be sexually attracted to teen-aged youths of both sexes, and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger partner was not a freeborn Roman. "Homosexual" and "heterosexual" did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist. No moral censure was directed at the adult male who enjoyed sex acts with either women or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his male peers. While perceived effeminacy was denounced, especially in political rhetoric, sex in moderation with male prostitutes or slaves was not regarded as improper or vitiating to masculinity, if the male citizen took the active and not the receptive role. Hypersexuality, however, was condemned morally and medically in both men and women. Women were held to a stricter moral code, and same-sex relations between women are poorly documented, but the sexuality of women is variously celebrated or reviled throughout Latin literature. In general the Romans had more flexible gender categories than the ancient Greeks.


Erotic literature and art

Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Roman erotica

Ancient literature pertaining to Roman sexuality falls mainly into four categories: legal texts; medical texts; poetry; and political discourse. Forms of expression with lower cultural cachet in antiquity—such as comedy, satire, invective, love poetry, graffiti, magic spells, inscriptions, and interior decoration—have more to say about sex than elevated media, such as epic and tragedy. Information about the sex lives of the Romans is scattered in historiography, oratory, philosophy, and writings on medicine, agriculture, and other technical topics. Legal texts point to behaviors Romans wanted to regulate or prohibit, without necessarily reflecting what people actually did or refrained from doing.

Major Latin authors whose works contribute significantly to an understanding of Roman sexuality include:

  • the comic playwright Plautus (d. 184 BC), whose plots often revolve around sex comedy and young lovers kept apart by circumstances;
  • the statesman and moralist Cato the Elder (d. 149 BC), who offers glimpses of sexuality at a time that later Romans regarded as having higher moral standards;
  • the poet Lucretius (d. c. 55 BC), who presents an extended treatment of Epicurean sexuality in his philosophical work De rerum natura;
  • Catullus (fl. 50s BC), whose poems explore a range of erotic experience near the end of the Republic, from delicate romanticism to brutally obscene invective;
  • Cicero (d. 43 BC), with courtroom speeches that often attack the opposition's sexual conduct and letters peppered with gossip about Rome's elite;
  • the Augustan elegists Propertius and Tibullus, who reveal social attitudes in describing love affairs with mistresses;
  • Ovid (d. 17 AD), especially his Amores ("Love Affairs") and Ars Amatoria ("Art of Love"), which according to tradition contributed to Augustus's decision to exile the poet, and his epic, the Metamorphoses, which presents a range of sexuality, with an emphasis on rape, through the lens of mythology;
  • the epigrammatist Martial (d. c. 102/4 AD), whose observations of society are braced by sexually explicit invective;
  • the satirist Juvenal (d. early 2nd century AD), who rails against the sexual mores of his time.

Ovid lists a number of writers known for salacious material whose works are now lost. Greek sex manuals and "straightforward pornography" were published under the name of famous heterai (courtesans), and circulated in Rome. The robustly sexual Milesiaca of Aristides was translated by Sisenna, one of the praetors of 78 BC. Ovid calls the book a collection of misdeeds (crimina), and says the narrative was laced with dirty jokes. Plutarch, in his Life of Crassus, tells us that after the defeat of Carrhae in 53 BCE, some Milesiaca were found in the baggage of the Parthians' Roman prisoners.

Erotic art, especially as preserved in Pompeii and Herculaneum, is a rich if not unambiguous source; some images contradict sexual preferences stressed in literary sources and may be intended to provoke laughter or challenge conventional attitudes. Everyday objects such as mirrors and serving vessels might be decorated with erotic scenes; on Arretine ware, these range from "elegant amorous dalliance" to explicit views of the penis entering the vagina. Erotic paintings were found in the most respectable houses of the Roman nobility, as Ovid notes:

Just as venerable figures of men, painted by the hand of an artist, are resplendent in our houses, so too there is a small painting (tabella) in some spot which depicts various couplings and sexual positions: just as Telamonian Ajax sits with an expression that declares his anger, and the barbarian mother (Medea) has crime in her eyes, so too a wet Venus dries her dripping hair with her fingers and is viewed barely covered by the maternal waters.

The pornographic tabella and the erotically charged Venus appear among various images that a connoisseur of art might enjoy. A series of paintings from the Suburban Baths at Pompeii, discovered in 1986 and published in 1995, presents erotic scenarios that seem intended "to amuse the viewer with outrageous sexual spectacle," including a variety of positions, oral sex, and group sex featuring male–female, male–male, and female–female relations.

The décor of a Roman bedroom could reflect quite literally its sexual use: the Augustan poet Horace supposedly had a mirrored room for sex, so that when he hired a prostitute he could watch from all angles. The emperor Tiberius had his bedrooms decorated with "the most lascivious" paintings and sculptures, and stocked with Greek sex manuals by Elephantis in case those employed in sex needed direction.

In the 2nd century AD, "there is a boom in texts about sex in Greek and Latin," along with romance novels. But frank sexuality all but disappears from literature thereafter, and sexual topics are reserved for medical writing or Christian theology. In the 3rd century, celibacy had become an ideal among the growing number of Christians, and Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria debated whether even marital sex should be permitted for procreation. The sexuality of martyrology focuses on tests against the Christian's chastity and sexual torture; Christian women are more often than men subjected to sexual mutilation, in particular of the breasts. The obscene humor of Martial was briefly revived in 4th-century Bordeaux by the Gallo-Roman scholar-poet Ausonius, although he shunned Martial's predilection for pederasty and was at least nominally a Christian.

Theories of sexuality

philosophy of sex

Ancient theories of sexuality are produced by and for an educated elite. The extent to which theorizing about sex actually affected behavior is debatable, even among those who were attentive to the philosophical and medical writings that presented such views. This elite discourse, while often deliberately critical of common or typical behaviors, at the same time cannot be assumed to exclude values broadly held within the society.

Epicurean sexuality

"Nor does he who avoids love lack the fruit of Venus but rather chooses goods which are without a penalty; for certainly the pleasure from this is more pure for the healthy than for the wretched. For indeed, at the very moment of possession, the hot passion of lovers fluctuates with uncertain wanderings and they are undecided what to enjoy first with eyes and hands. They tightly press what they have sought and cause bodily pain, and often drive their teeth into little lips and give crushing kisses, because the pleasure is not pure and there are goads underneath which prod them to hurt that very thing, whatever it is, from which those [torments] of frenzy spring."(translation from Robert D. Brown, Lucretius on Love and Sex (Brill, 1987)

The fourth book of Lucretius' De rerum natura provides one of the most extended passages on human sexuality in Latin literature. Yeats, describing the translation by Dryden, called it "the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written." Lucretius was the contemporary of Catullus and Cicero in the mid-1st century BC. His didactic poem De rerum natura is a presentation of Epicurean philosophy within the Ennian tradition of Latin poetry. Epicureanism is both materialist and hedonic. The highest good is pleasure, defined as the absence of physical pain and emotional distress. The Epicurean seeks to gratify his desires with the least expenditure of passion and effort. Desires are ranked as those that are both natural and necessary, such as hunger and thirst; those that are natural but unnecessary, such as sex; and those that are neither natural nor necessary, including the desire to rule over others and glorify oneself. It is within this context that Lucretius presents his analysis of love and sexual desire, which counters the erotic ethos of Catullus and influenced the love poets of the Augustan period.

Lucretius treats male desire, female sexual pleasure, heredity, and infertility as aspects of sexual physiology. In the Epicurean view, sexuality arises from impersonal physical causes without divine or supernatural influence. The onset of physical maturity generates semen, and wet dreams occur as the sexual instinct develops. Sense perception, specifically the sight of a beautiful body, provokes the movement of semen into the genitals and toward the object of desire. The engorgement of the genitals creates an urge to ejaculate, coupled with the anticipation of pleasure. The body's response to physical attractiveness is automatic, and neither the character of the person desired nor one's own choice is a factor. With a combination of scientific detachment and ironic humor, Lucretius treats the human sex drive as muta cupido, "dumb desire", comparing the physiological response of ejaculation to the blood spurting from a wound. love taints sexual pleasure just as life is tainted by the fear of death. Lucretius is writing primarily for a male audience, and assumes that love is a male passion, directed at either boys or women. Male desire is viewed as pathological, frustrating, and violent.

Lucretius thus expresses an Epicurean ambivalence toward sexuality, which threatens one's peace of mind with agitation if desire becomes a form of bondage and torment, but his view of female sexuality is less negative. While men are driven by unnatural expectations to engage in onesided and desperate sex, women act on a purely animal instinct toward affection, which leads to mutual satisfaction. The comparison with female animals in heat is meant not as an insult, though there are a few traces of conventional misogyny in the work, but to indicate that desire is natural and should not be experienced as torture.

Having analyzed the sex act, Lucretius then considers conception and what in modern terms would be called genetics. Both man and woman, he says, produce genital fluids that mingle in a successful procreative act. The characteristics of the child are formed by the relative proportions of the mother's "seed" to the father's. A child who most resembles its mother is born when the female seed dominates the male's, and vice versa; when neither the male nor female seed dominates, the child will have traits of both mother and father evenly.

Infertility occurs when the two partners fail to make a satisfactory match of their seed after several attempts; the explanation for infertility is physiological and rational, and has nothing to do with the gods. The transfer of genital "seed" (semina) is consonant with Epicurean physics and the theme of the work as a whole: the invisible semina rerum, "seeds of things," continually dissolve and recombine in universal flux. The vocabulary of biological procreation underlies Lucretius's presentation of how matter is formed from atoms.

Lucretius' purpose is to correct ignorance and to give the knowledge necessary for managing one's sex life rationally. He distinguishes between pleasure and conception as goals of copulation; both are legitimate, but require different approaches. He recommends casual sex as a way of releasing sexual tension without becoming obsessed with a single object of desire; a "streetwalking Venus"—a common prostitute—should be used as a surrogate. Sex without passionate attachment produces a superior form of pleasure free of uncertainty, frenzy, and mental disturbance. Lucretius calls this form of sexual pleasure venus, in contrast to amor, passionate love. The best sex is that of happy animals, or of gods. Lucretius combines an Epicurean wariness of sex as a threat to peace of mind with the Roman cultural value placed on sexuality as an aspect of marriage and family life, pictured as an Epicurean man in a tranquil and friendly marriage with a good but homely woman, beauty being a disquieting prompt to excessive desire. Lucretius reacts against the Roman tendency to display sex ostentatiously, as in erotic art, and rejects the aggressive, "Priapic" model of sexuality spurred by visual stimulus.

Stoic sexual morality

In early Stoicism among the Greeks, sex was regarded as a good, if enjoyed between people who maintained the principles of respect and friendship; in the ideal society, sex should be enjoyed freely, without bonds of marriage that treated the partner as property. Some Greek Stoics privileged same-sex relations between a man and a younger male partner (see "Pederasty in ancient Greece"). Stoics in the Roman Imperial era, however, departed from the view of human beings as "communally sexual animals" and emphasized sex within marriage, which as an institution helped sustain social order. Although they distrusted strong passions, including sexual desire, sexual vitality was necessary for procreation.

Roman-era Stoics such as Seneca and Musonius Rufus, both active about a hundred years after Lucretius, emphasized "sex unity" over the polarity of the sexes. Although Musonius is predominately a Stoic, his philosophy also partakes of Platonism and Pythagoreanism. He rejected the Aristotelian tradition, which portrayed sexual dimorphism as expressing a proper relation of those ruling (male) and those being ruled (female), and distinguished men from women as biologically lacking. Dimorphism exists, according to Musonius, simply to create difference, and difference in turn creates the desire for a complementary relationship, that is, a couple who will bond for life for the sake of each other and for their children. The Roman ideal of marriage was a partnership of companions who work together to produce and rear children, manage everyday affairs, lead exemplary lives, and enjoy affection; Musonius drew on this ideal to promote the Stoic view that the capacity for virtue and self-mastery was not gender-specific.

Both Musonius and Seneca criticized the double standard, cultural and legal, that granted Roman men greater sexual freedom than women. Men, Musonius argues, are excused by society for resorting to prostitutes and slaves to satisfy their sexual appetites, while such behavior from a woman would not be tolerated; therefore, if men presume to exercise authority over women because they believe themselves to have greater self-control, they ought to be able to manage their sex drive. The argument, then, is not that sexual freedom is a human good, but that men as well as women should exercise sexual restraint. A man visiting a prostitute does harm to himself by lacking self-discipline; disrespect for his wife and her expectations of fidelity would not be at issue. Similarly, a man should not be so self-indulgent as to exploit a female slave sexually; her right not to be used, however, is not a motive for his restraint. Musonius maintained that even within marriage, sex should be undertaken as an expression of affection and for procreation, and not for "bare pleasure".

Musonius did not approve of same-sex relations in general, because they lacked a procreative purpose. Seneca and Epictetus also thought that procreation privileged male–female sexual pairing within marriage, and Seneca strongly opposed adultery, finding it particularly offensive by women.

Seneca is known primarily as a Stoic philosopher, but he draws on Neopythagoreanism for his views on sexual austerity. Neopythagoreans characterized sexuality outside marriage as disordered and undesirable; celibacy was not an ideal, but chastity within marriage was. To Seneca, sexual desire for pleasure (libido) is a "destructive force (exitium) insidiously fixed in the innards"; unregulated, it becomes cupiditas, lust. The only justification for sex is reproduction within marriage. Although other Stoics see potential in beauty to be an ethical stimulus, a way to attract and develop affection and friendship within sexual relations, Seneca distrusts the love of physical beauty as destroying reason to the point of insanity. A man should have no sexual partner other than his wife, and the wise man (sapiens, Greek sophos) will make love to his wife by exercising good judgment (iudicium), not emotion (affectus). This is a far stricter view than that of other Stoics who advocate sex as a means of promoting mutual affection within marriage.

The philosophical view of the body as a corpse that carries around the soul ("You are a little soul, carrying a corpse", Epictetus) could result in outright contempt for sexuality: "as for sexual intercourse," the emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius writes, "it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus." (Meditations) Seneca rails "at great length" against the perversity of one Hostius Quadra, who surrounded himself with the equivalent of funhouse mirrors so he could view sex parties from distorted angles and penises would look bigger.

Sexual severity opened the Roman Stoics to charges of hypocrisy: Juvenal satirizes those who affect a rough and manly Stoic façade but privately indulge. It was routinely joked that not only were Stoics inclined toward pederasty, they liked young men who were acquiring beards, contrary to Roman sexual custom. Martial repeatedly makes insinuations about those who were outwardly Stoic but privately enjoyed the passive homosexual role.

Stoic sexual ethics are grounded in their physics and cosmology. The 5th-century writer Macrobius preserves a Stoic interpretation of the myth of the birth of Venus as a result of the primal castration of the deity Heaven (Latin Caelus). The myth, Macrobius indicates, could be understood as an allegory of the doctrine of seminal reason. The elements derive from the semina, "seeds," that are generated by heaven; "love" brings together the elements in the act of creation, like the sexual union of male and female. Cicero suggests that in Stoic allegory the severing of reproductive organs signifies, "...that the highest heavenly aether, that seed-fire which generates all things, did not require the equivalent of human genitals to proceed in its generative work."

See also

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