Sexuality in Ancient Rome

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016
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Vasily Alexandrovich Kotarbinsky - Detail
It is difficult, from the perspective of the 21st Century, to fully comprehend the Roman attitude towards sex and sexuality.
Most individuals, in the West, and Europe, although living in what many consider to be a 'post-Christian' society, are deeply influenced by the Christian tradition of ethics and morality regarding sex.
Equally we are strongly influenced by the Enlightenment beliefs in the equality and dignity of all, and the Romantics' concept of 'romantic love'.

The Romans, of course, lived in what we quaintly like to describe as a 'pagan' (pre-Christian) culture, which accepted extreme levels of social, legal and economic inequality, in the form of slavery, and looked upon marriage as the social, economic and/or political joining of families (rather than individuals), - very much for the purpose of producing children.
As for romantic love, that was very rarely part of marriage, with husbands looking for sexual fulfillment (and much less often, emotional fulfillment) in the arms of prostitutes, family slave-girls, or slave-boys.
More often than not, upper class men turned to boys, for sex and romantic relationships, as a result of the Roman family practice of giving patrician adolescents a young slave-boy (concubinus) to satisfy their needs, prior to marriage - and the habit, of course, usually continued well after marriage.

Sexuality in ancient Rome, and more broadly, 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.

Baths of Caracalla
Sir Lawrence Alma Tedama
It has sometimes been assumed that "unlimited sexual license" was characteristic of ancient Rome - but in reality this perspective is simply a Christian interpretation, and it is the case that the sexuality of the Romans has never had good press in the West ever since the rise of Christianity.
In the popular imagination and culture, it is synonymous with sexual license and abuse.
In this sense it should be noted that 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 - public officials who determined the social rank of individuals - had the power to remove citizens from the senatorial or equestrian order for sexual misconduct, and on occasion did so.
This indicates that, to a large extent, sex throughout the Greco-Roman world as governed by restraint and the art of managing sexual pleasure.


In considering sexuality in ancient Roman society it is essential to note that Roman society was 'patriarchal', and 'masculinity' was premised on a capacity for governing oneself and others of lower status, not only in war and politics, but also in sexual relations.

Roman Wedding
Vasily Alexandrovich Kotarbinsky
'Virtus', "virtue", was an active masculine ideal of self-discipline, related to the Latin word for "man", 'vir'.
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.
Visual art was created by those of lower social status, and of a greater range of ethnicity, but was tailored to the taste and inclinations of those wealthy enough to afford it, including, in the Imperial era, former slaves.
It should also be noted that some sexual attitudes and behaviors in ancient Roman culture differ markedly from those in later Western societies.
Roman religion promoted 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.
What we today would consider to be 'Pornographic' paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upper-class households.

© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016
It was considered natural and unremarkable for men to be sexually attracted to teen-aged boys and girls - and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger male partner was not a freeborn Roman.
"Homosexual" and "heterosexual" did not form a part of Roman thinking about sexuality, particularly as NO Latin words for these concepts exist.
No moral censure was directed at the man who enjoyed sex acts with either females or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his masculine peers.

'Perceived Effeminacy'
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.
Hyper-sexuality, 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.
A useful way to comprehend Roman attitudes towards sexuality is to consider the terms 'penetrator' and 'penetrated'.
Male Roman citizens were, by definition, expected to take on the role of 'penetrator, and never be 'penetrated'.
Even the relevance of the word "sexuality" to ancient Roman culture is often disputed, - but in the absence of any other label for "the cultural interpretation of erotic experience", the term continues to be used.


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,  - have more to say about sex than elevated genres, 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:

Plautus and Ovid
  • 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.
After the Battle of Carrhae, the Parthians were reportedly shocked to find the Milesiaca in the baggage of Marcus Crassus's officers.


Eotic Art on the Back of
a Hand Mirror
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.

Explicit Wall Painting from Pompeii
Erotic Wall Painting
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.


Like other aspects of Roman life, sexuality was supported and regulated by religious traditions, both the public cult of the state and private religious practices and magic.
Sexuality was an important category of Roman religious thought.
The complement of male and female was vital to the Roman concept of deity.
The 'Dii Consentes' were a council of deities in male-female pairs, to some extent Rome's equivalent to the Twelve Olympians of the Greeks.
At least two state priesthoods were held jointly by a married couple.

Vestal Virgin
The Vestal Virgins, the one state priesthood reserved for women, took a vow of chastity that granted them relative independence from male control; among the religious objects in their keeping was a sacred phallus: "Vesta's fire ... evoked the idea of sexual purity in the female" and "represented the pro-creative power of the male."
The men who served in the various colleges of priests were expected to marry and have families. 

Cicero held that the desire (libido) to procreate was "the seedbed of the republic," as it was the cause for the first form of social institution, marriage.
Marriage produced children and in turn a "house" (domus) for family unity that was the building block of urban life (one can glean from this why Adolf Hitler was so keen on the Romans)
Many Roman religious festivals had an element of sexuality.
The February Lupercalia, included an archaic fertility rite.
The Floralia featured nude dancing.
At certain religious festivals throughout April, prostitutes participated or were officially recognized.

The connections among human reproduction, general prosperity, and the wellbeing of the state are embodied by the Roman cult of Venus, who differs from her Greek counterpart Aphrodite in her role as a mother of the Roman people through her half-mortal son Aeneas.
During the civil wars of the 80s BC, Sulla, about to invade his own country with the legions under his command, issued a coin depicting a crowned Venus as his personal patron deity, with Cupid holding a palm branch of victory; on the reverse military trophies flank symbols of the augurs, the state priests who read the will of the gods.

The iconography links deities of love and desire with military success and religious authority; Sulla adopted the title Epaphroditus, "Aphrodite's own," before he became a dictator.
The 'fascinum', (the phallus - erect penis) - from which we get the word 'fascinate'), was ubiquitous in Roman culture, appearing on everything from jewelry to bells and wind chimes to lamps, including as an amulet to protect children and triumphing generals.

© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2016
Cupid inspired desire; the imported god Priapus represented gross or humorous lust; Mutunus Tutunus promoted marital sex.
The god Liber (understood as the "Free One") oversaw physiological responses during sexual intercourse.
When a male assumed the toga virilis, "toga of manhood," Liber became his patron; according to the love poets, he left behind the innocent modesty (pudor) of childhood, and acquired the sexual freedom (libertas) to begin his course of love.
A host of deities oversaw every aspect of intercourse, conception, and childbirth.
Classical myths often deal with sexual themes, such as gender identity, adultery, incest, and rape.
Roman art and literature continued the Hellenistic treatment of mythological figures having sex as humanly erotic and at times humorous, often removed from the religious dimension.



The Latin word castitas, from which the English "chastity" derives, is an abstract noun denoting "a moral and physical purity usually in a specifically religious context", sometimes but not always referring to sexual chastity.
The related adjective castus (feminine casta, neuter castum), "pure," can be used of places and objects as well as people; the adjective pudicus ("chaste, modest") describes more specifically a person who is sexually moral.
The goddess Ceres was concerned with both ritual and sexual castitas, and the torch carried in her honor as part of the Roman wedding procession was associated with the bride's purity; Ceres also embodied motherhood.
The goddess Vesta was the primary deity of the Roman pantheon associated with castitas, and a virgin goddess herself; her priestesses the Vestals were virgins who took a vow to remain celibate.


Incestum (that which is "not castum") is an act that violates religious purity, perhaps synonymous with that which is 'nefas', religiously impermissible.
'The violation of a Vestal's vow of chastity was incestum, a legal charge brought against her and the man who rendered her impure through sexual relations, whether consensually or by force.

Bona Dea
A Vestal's loss of 'castitas' ruptured Rome's treaty with the gods (pax deorum), and was typically accompanied by the observation of bad omens (prodigia).
Prosecutions for incestum involving a Vestal often coincide with political unrest, and some charges of incestum seem politically motivated: Marcus Crassus was acquitted of incestum with a Vestal who shared his family name.
Although the English word "incest" derives from the Latin, incestuous relations are only one form of Roman incestum, sometimes translated as "sacrilege."
When Clodius Pulcher dressed as a woman and intruded on the all-female rites of the Bona Dea, he was charged with incestum.


In Latin legal and moral discourse, stuprum is illicit sexual intercourse, translatable as "criminal debauchery" or "sex crime."
Stuprum encompasses diverse sexual offenses including incestum, rape ("unlawful sex by force"), and adultery.
In early Rome, stuprum was a disgraceful act in general, or any public disgrace, including but not limited to illicit sex.
By the time of the comic playwright Plautus (ca. 254–184 BC) it had acquired its more restricted sexual meaning.
Stuprum can occur only among citizens; protection from sexual misconduct was among the legal rights that distinguished the citizen from the non-citizen.
Although the noun stuprum may be translated into English as fornication, the intransitive verb "to fornicate" is an inadequate translation of the Latin stuprare, which is a transitive verb requiring a direct object (the person who is the target of the misconduct) and a male agent (the stuprator).


Rape of the Sabine Women
The English word "rape" derives ultimately from the Latin verb rapio, rapere, raptus, "to snatch, carry away, abduct".
In Roman law, raptus (or raptio) meant primarily kidnapping or abduction; the mythological "rape" of the Sabine women is a form of bride abduction in which sexual violation is a secondary issue.
The "abduction" of an unmarried girl from her father's household in some circumstances was a matter of the couple eloping without her father's permission to marry.
Rape in the English sense was more often expressed as stuprum committed through violence or coercion (cum vi or per vim).
As laws pertaining to violence were codified toward the end of the Republic, raptus ad stuprum, "abduction for the purpose of committing a sex crime", emerged as a legal distinction.


Divine aid might be sought in private religious rituals along with medical treatments to enhance or block fertility, or to cure diseases of the reproductive organs.
Votive offerings (vota; compare ex-voto) in the form of breasts and penises have been found at healing sanctuaries.
A private ritual under some circumstances might be considered "magic," an indistinct category in antiquity.
An amatorium (Greek philtron) was a love charm or potion; binding spells (defixiones) were supposed to "fix" a person's sexual affection.
The 'Greek Magical Papyri', a collection of syncretic magic texts, contain many love spells that indicate there was a very lively market in erotic magic in the Roman period, catered by freelance priests who at times claimed to derive their authority from the Egyptian religious tradition.
Canidia, a witch described by Horace, performs a spell using a female effigy to dominate a smaller male doll.
Aphrodisiacs, anaphrodisiacs, contraceptives, and abortifacients are preserved by both medical handbooks and magic texts; potions can be difficult to distinguish from pharmacology.
In his Book 33 'De medicamentis', Marcellus of Bordeaux, a contemporary of Ausonius, collected more than 70 sexually related treatments - for growths and lesions on the testicles and penis, undescended testicles, erectile dysfunction, hydrocele, creating a eunuch without surgery, ensuring a woman's fidelity, and compelling or diminishing a man's desire - some of which involve ritual procedures:
'If you’ve had a woman, and you don't want another man ever to get inside her, do this: Cut off the tail of a live green lizard with your left hand and release it while it’s still alive. Keep the tail closed up in the palm of the same hand until it dies and touch the woman and her private parts when you have intercourse with her.' 
'There is an herb called 'nymphaea' in Greek, 'Hercules’ club' in Latin, and baditis in Gaulish. Its root, pounded to a paste and drunk in vinegar for ten consecutive days, has the astonishing effect of turning a boy into a eunuch.'
'If the spermatic veins of an immature boy should become enlarged, split a young cherry-tree down the middle to its roots while leaving it standing, in such a way that the boy can be passed through the cleft. Then join the sapling together again and seal it with cow manure and other dressings, so that the parts that were split may intermingle within themselves more easily. The speed with which the sapling grows together and its scar forms will determine how quickly the swollen veins of the boy will return to health.'
Marcellus also records which herbs could be used to induce menstruation, or to purge the womb after childbirth or abortion; these herbs include potential abortifacients and may have been used as such.
Other sources advise remedies such as coating the penis with a mixture of honey and pepper to get an erection, or boiling an ass's genitals in oil as an ointment.


Prostitution in Ancient Rome was legal and licensed.
In Ancient Rome, even Roman men of the highest social status were free to engage prostitutes of either sex without incurring moral disapproval, as long as they demonstrated self-control and moderation in the frequency and enjoyment of sex.
Oddly, at the same time, the prostitutes themselves were considered shameful: most were either slaves or former slaves, or if free by birth relegated to the 'infames', people utterly lacking in social standing, and deprived of most protections accorded to citizens under Roman law, a status they shared with actors and gladiators, all of whom, however, exerted a certain sexual allure.
Although both women and men engaged prostitutes of either gender, the evidence for female prostitution is more ample.
A prostitute could be self-employed, and rent a room for work.
A girl ('puella', a term used in poetry as a synonym for "girlfriend" or 'meretrix', and not necessarily an age designation) might live with a procuress or madame (lena), or even go into business under the management of her mother, though 'mater' might sometimes be a mere euphemism for 'lena'.
Prostitutes could also work out of a brothel or tavern for a procurer or pimp (leno).
Most prostitutes seem to have been slaves.
High class brothels occassionally combined massage and bathing facilities with sexual services.
In 'The Story of Gracchus' two of the male characters patronise a high class brothel in Rome, and use te baths, that are part of the establishment, for their sexual encounter with the boy-prostitutes they have hired.
Client with a Boy-Prostitute
in a Brothel Pool
from The Story of Gracchus Chapter  XXVII
"We have a bathing facility here, also.  Perhaps you and the boys would like to uses it. Many of our clients like to get to know our boys and girls in the relaxing atmosphere of the pool. It will, of course, cost just a little more.". "That sounds good !", Servius said, and went over to the Villicus to quietly negotiate a good price. Meanwhile, Petronius went over to the boys, who were smiling in eager anticipation - most of their clients were rich, but old and ugly - but the boys were pleased that these two clients were young and handsome - and it seemed rich. Petronius loudly introduced himself and Servius. "My name is Phaedrus, and my friend there, talking to your Villicus, is Achaeus. We have come from Pompeii, and this is our first visit to Rome." Servius and Petronius (using the Greek names - 'Achaeus' and 'Phaedrus'), spent longer than they had really intended in the the company of the delightful boys, and they managed to fuck each of the boys in turn, interspersed with mock wrestling and lots of playful splashing.

Some professional prostitutes, perhaps to be compared to courtesans, cultivated elite patrons and could even become wealthy.
The dictator Sulla is supposed to have built his fortune on the wealth left to him by a prostitute in her will.
Romans also assumed that actors and dancers were available to provide paid sexual services, and courtesans whose names survive in the historical record are sometimes indistinguishable from actresses and other performers.

Brothel Tokens
Slaves on Display in a High Class Roman Brothel
Interestingly, after the institution of the Principate under Augustus, Roman coinage was not legal tender in a brothel (probably because it has a representation of the Emperor on one of the faces) and so tokens were exchanged for legal coinage, and the tokens were used in the brothel.
Prostitution was regulated to some extent, not so much for moral reasons as to maximize profit.
Prostitutes had to register with the Aediles.
She gave her correct name, her age, place of birth, and the pseudonym under which she intended practicing her calling.
If the girl was young and apparently respectable, the official sought to influence her to change her mind; failing in this, he issued her a license (licentia stupri), ascertained the price she intended exacting for her favors, and entered her name in his roll.
Once entered there, the name could never be removed, but must remain for all time an insurmountable bar to repentance and respectability.


The fourth book of Lucretius' 'De rerum natura' provides one of the most extended passages on human sexuality in Latin literature.
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 (amor) is merely an elaborate cultural posturing that obscures a glandular condition; 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 one-sided 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.


During the Republic, a Roman citizen's political liberty (libertas) was defined in part by the right to preserve his body from physical compulsion, including both corporal punishment and sexual abuse.
Virtus, "valor" as that which made a man most fully a man (vir), was among the active virtues.
Roman ideals of masculinity were thus premised on taking an active role that was also, the prime directive of masculine sexual behavior for Romans.
The impetus toward action might express itself most intensely in an ideal of dominance that reflects the hierarchy of Roman patriarchal society.
The "conquest mentality" was part of a "cult of virility" that particularly shaped Roman 'male on male' practices.
Roman male sexuality should therefore be seen in terms of a "penetrator-penetrated" binary model; that is, the proper way for a Roman male to seek sexual gratification was to insert his penis in his partner.
Allowing himself to be penetrated threatened his liberty as a free citizen as well as his sexual integrity.
It was expected and socially acceptable for a freeborn Roman man to want sex with both female and male partners, as long as he took the dominating role.
Acceptable objects of desire were women of any social or legal status, male prostitutes, or male slaves, but sexual behaviors outside marriage were to be confined to slaves and prostitutes, or less often a concubine or "kept woman."
Lack of self-control, including in managing one's sex life, indicated that a man was incapable of governing others; the enjoyment of "low sensual pleasure" threatened to erode the elite male's identity as a cultured person.
It was a point of pride for Gaius Gracchus to claim that during his term as a provincial governor he kept no slave-boys chosen for their good looks, no female prostitutes visited his house, and he never accosted other men's slave-boys.
In the Imperial era, anxieties about the loss of political liberty and the subordination of the citizen to the emperor were expressed by a perceived increase in passive homosexual behavior among free men, accompanied by a documentable increase in the execution and corporal punishment of citizens.
The dissolution of Republican ideals of physical integrity in relation to libertas contributes to and is reflected by the sexual license and decadence associated with the Empire.


Roman Athlete
Stefan Bakalowicz
The poet Ennius (ca. 239–169 BC) declared that "exposing naked bodies among citizens is the beginning of public disgrace (flagitium)," a sentiment echoed by Cicero that again links the self-containment of the body with citizenship.
Roman attitudes toward nudity differed from those of the Greeks, whose ideal of masculine excellence was expressed by the nude male body in art and in such real-life venues as athletic contests.

The toga, by contrast, distinguished the body of the sexually privileged adult Roman male.
Even when stripping down for exercises, Roman men kept their genitals and buttocks covered, an Italic custom shared also with the Etruscans, whose art mostly shows them wearing a loincloth, a skirt-like garment, or the earliest form of "shorts" for athletics.
Romans who competed in the Olympic Games presumably followed the Greek custom of nudity, but athletic nudity at Rome has been dated variously, possibly as early as the introduction of Greek-style games in the 2nd century BC but perhaps not regularly till the time of Nero around 60 AD.
Public nudity might be offensive or distasteful even in traditional settings; Cicero derides Mark Antony as undignified for appearing near-naked (wolf-skin thong) as a participant in the Lupercalia, even though it was ritually required.

Crucified Thief
Corinth Lovis
'Slave Auction'
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016
Nudity is one of the themes of this religious festival that most consumes Ovid's attention in the Fasti, his long-form poem on the Roman calendar.
Augustus, during his program of religious revivalism, attempted to reform the Lupercalia, in part by suppressing the use of nudity despite its fertility aspect.
Negative connotations of nudity include defeat in war and combat, since the defeated were regularly stripped naked, and slavery, since slaves for sale were almost always displayed naked.
Equally when slave were punished by flogging, castration or crucifixion the were stripped naked.
The disapproval of nudity was thus less a matter of trying to suppress inappropriate sexual desire than of dignifying and marking the citizen's body.
The influence of Greek art, however, led to "heroic" nude portrayals of Roman men and gods, a practice that began in the 2nd century BC.

The God Mars
When statues of Roman generals nude in the manner of Hellenistic kings first began to be displayed, they were shocking not simply because they exposed the male figure, but because they evoked concepts of royalty and divinity that were contrary to Republican ideals of citizenship as embodied by the toga.
The god Mars is presented as a mature, bearded man in the attire of a Roman general when he is conceived of as the dignified father of the Roman people, while depictions of Mars as youthful, beardless, and nude show the influence of the Greek Ares.
In art produced under Augustus, the programmatic adoption of Hellenistic and Neo-Attic style led to more complex signification of the male body shown nude, partially nude, or costumed in a muscle cuirass.
One exception to public nudity was the baths, though attitudes toward nude bathing also changed over time.
In the 2nd century BC, Cato preferred not to bathe in the presence of his son, and Plutarch implies that for Romans of these earlier times it was considered shameful for mature men to expose their bodies to younger males.
Later, however, men and women might even bathe together.


Roman sexuality as framed by Latin literature has been described as phallocentric.
The phallus was supposed to have powers to ward off the evil eye and other malevolent supernatural forces.
It was used as an amulet (fascinum), many examples of which survive, particularly in the form of wind chimes (tintinnabula).
Some scholars have even interpreted the plan of the Forum Augustum as phallic, "with its two semi-circular galleries or exedrae as the testicles and its long projecting forecourt as the shaft."

The outsize phallus of Roman art was associated with the god Priapus, among others.
It was laughter-provoking, grotesque, or used for magical purposes.
Originating in the Greek town of Lampsacus, Priapus was a fertility deity whose statue was placed in gardens to ward off thieves.
The poetry collection called the Priapea deals with phallic sexuality, including poems spoken in the person of Priapus.
In one, for instance, Priapus threatens anal rape against any potential thief.
The wrath of Priapus might cause impotence, or a state of perpetual arousal with no means of release: one curse of Priapus upon a thief was that he might lack women or boys to relieve him of his erection, and burst.
There are approximately 120 recorded Latin terms and metaphors for the penis, with the largest category treating the male member as an instrument of aggression, a weapon.
This metaphorical tendency is exemplified by actual lead sling-bullets, which are sometimes inscribed with the image of a phallus, or messages that liken the target to a sexual conquest—for instance "I seek Octavian's asshole."
The most common obscenity for the penis is mentula, which Martial argues for in place of polite terms: his privileging of the word as time-honored Latin from the era of Numa may be compared to the unvarnished integrity of "four letter Anglo-Saxon words."
Cicero does not use the word even when discussing the nature of obscene language in a letter to his friend Atticus;
Catullus famously uses it as a pseudonym for the disreputable Mamurra, Julius Caesar's friend ("Dick" or "Peter" might be English equivalents).
Mentula appears frequently in graffiti and the Priapea, but while obscene the word was not inherently abusive or vituperative.
Verpa, by contrast, was "an emotive and highly offensive word" for the penis with its foreskin drawn back, as the result of an erection, excessive sexual activity, or circumcision.
Virga, as well as other words for "branch, rod, stake, beam," is a common metaphor, as is vomer, "plough."
The penis might also be referred to as the "vein" (vena), "tail" (penis or cauda), or "tendon" (nervus).
The English word "penis" derives from penis, which originally meant "tail", but in Classical Latin was used regularly as a "risqué colloquialism" for the male organ.
Later, penis becomes the standard word in polite Latin.
The apparent connection between Latin testes, "testicles," and testis, plural testes, "witness" (the origin of English "testify" and "testimony") may lie in archaic ritual.
Some ancient Mediterranean cultures swore binding oaths upon the male genitalia, symbolizing that "the bearing of false witness brings a curse upon not only oneself, but one's house and future line."
Latin writers make frequent puns and jokes based on the two meanings of testis: it took balls to become a legally functioning male citizen.
The English word "testicle" derives from the diminutive testiculum.
The obscene word for "testicle" was coleus.


To Romans, castration and circumcision were linked as barbaric mutilations of the male genitalia.
When the cult of Cybele was imported to Rome at the end of the 3rd century BC, its traditional eunuchism was confined to foreign priests (the Galli), while Roman citizens formed sodalities to perform honors in keeping with their own customs.
Some Roman citizens kept beautiful male slaves as 'deliciae' or 'delicati', who were sometimes castrated in an effort to preserve the androgynous looks of their youth.
Castration Clamps
The emperor Nero had his freedman Sporus castrated, and married him in a public ceremony.
Slaves guilty of raping Roman citizens, and on occasions prisoners of war, could be castrated, (this could include emasculation - involving the removal of the penis as well as the testicles), prior to, or during public execution - usually crucifixion.
By the end of the 1st century AD, bans against castration had been enacted by the emperors Domitian and Nerva in the face of a burgeoning trade in eunuch slaves.
Although Greco-Roman writers view circumcision as an identifying characteristic of Jews, they believed the practice to have originated in Egypt, and recorded it among peoples they identified as Arab, Syrian, Phoenician, Colchian, and Ethiopian.
Sometime between 128 and 132 AD, Hadrian seems to have temporarily banned circumcision, on pain of death.
A surgical procedure (epispasm) existed to restore the foreskin and cover the glans "for the sake of decorum."
Some Hellenized or Romanized Jews resorted to epispasm to make themselves less conspicuous at the baths or during athletics.

for explicit tales of Roman passion and sexuality
go to:

'The Story of Gracchus tells the tale of a young Roman boy, brought up in Athens.
When his father is recalled to Rome, at the end of the Reign of the Emperor Nero, Marcus, and his father and mother travel from Piraeus (the port of Athens) to Brundisium (in South East Italy) by boat.
They newer reach their destination, however, as the boat they are traveling on is attacked by pirates.
Marcus' mother and father are cruelly killed, and Marcus is taken, by the pirates, to Cydonia, in Crete, where he is sold as a slave to a slave-dealer called Arion.
Arion sells on Marcus to a 'mystery buyer' at a fabulously high price, and after a high speed journey through the night, Marcus and Terentius, - the 'mystery buyer', arrive at a magnificent Villa in Baiae, near Neápolis.
It is there that Marcus' real adventure begins .....

Chapters 1-41 have already been published - and are available


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© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016