In bed with the Romans: a brief history of sex in Ancient Rome
What is known about the sexual predilections of the men and women of ancient Rome? What were their attitudes to extra-marital sex and same-sex relationships? And how scandalous were the Roman emperors? Author Paul Chrystal steps inside the Roman bedroom and reveals how, right from the start, sex was linked to momentous constitutional development for the Roman state...
According to Philip Larkin's best-known poem, Annus Mirabilis, 1963 is the year in which sex was invented in Britain. For the Romans it would have been 750 BC.
Of course, like us, Romans and Latins had been having sex forever but, according to Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus (aka ‘Livy’), soon after the founding of Rome (in 753 BC), sex attained indelible and inextricable political and historical importance in the annals of Rome.
Right from the start, sex was linked to momentous constitutional development for the Roman state. The first instance was the 750 BC rape of the Sabine women – a carefully executed example of nation building in which the Romans replenished their dwindling supply of fertile women by carrying off the wives and daughters of the neighbouring Sabines.
Soon after, sex was implicated first in the overthrow of the tyrannical monarchy and the establishment of the republic, and then in the restoration of that republic so pivotal to Roman democracy. During the former, virtuous Lucretia [a legendary Roman matron whose fate played a key role in the transition from a Roman Kingdom into a Roman Republic] took her own life in 510 BC after being raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome.
In the latter, virginal Verginia was stabbed to death in 449 BC by her own father to avoid the shame of violation (stuprum) by Appius Claudius, one of the decemviri [an official commission of 10 men].
Preservation of sexual virtue – pudicitia – cost Lucretia and Verginia their lives; so important was pudicitia to Roman values, history and society. Later, Roman historians like Livy embellished the legendary women of the past with the sexual mores they insisted their contemporary women should enshrine.
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A sense of duty
Sex for most Romans was undoubtedly gratifying, but it was also a duty: largely speaking, it was probably more gratifying for the men and more a duty for their women. Men delighted in displaying their vir – manhood and sexual prowess – while women obliged by submitting to serial childbirth – a production line of babies, ideally boys, to maintain the family line and keep the battlefield and farm-land stocked with recruits. Baby girls, on the other hand, were costly and contributed little or nothing to the family income; moreover, they would require an expensive dowry one day.
Indeed, marriage itself was a lopsided affair. According to the men, women who married should not expect any pleasure or enjoyment – they tied the knot simply to procreate. Moreover, the silent, compliant and subservient wife was expected to turn a blind eye to her husband’s sexual infelicities, while the man could philander as much as he liked so long as the mistress was unmarried, or, if with a boy, he was over a certain age. Brothels, prostitutes and dancing girls were considered ‘fair game’, as were older males – with the one crucial proviso that it was you who did the penetrating. Being passive and being penetrated was considered women’s work: men who submitted were considered deficient in vir and in virtus (virtue): they were denounced and reviled as effeminate.
So same-sex in Ancient Rome was thought to be fine for a man (albeit with conditions), but same-sex between women was unconditionally execrated. ‘Lesbian’ sex often assumed penetration, which was considered man’s work, so a woman adopting this role (and her submissive recipient) were castigated in equal measure. The Latin for ‘Lesbian’ women was tribades or fricatores – “those (women) that rubbed”.
By the end the Republic, however, illicit and extra-marital sex was seen to be damaging and rampant. Augustus, as first emperor, noticed this and, although he himself was not averse to whisking off other men’s wives at the odd dinner party for a spot of hors d’oeuvre, he tried to restore some good old-fashioned family values with (largely unsuccessful) legislation relating to marriage, divorce and birth rate boosting.
Augustus’s sexual activity was, however, easily eclipsed by his wayward daughter Julia, who is said to have fornicated on the very podium from which her father had delivered his moralistic legislation. To Julia, life was a beach – her analogy that she never took a lover on board unless her boat was full (that is, she was pregnant) rebounded badly: her father eventually exiled her to the remote (and man-free) island of Pandataria, off the coast of Campania.
In some ways, Julia set the sexual benchmark for the early decades of the Roman empire. Years earlier, Julius Caesar had popularised the rage for celebrity cross-dressing when, aged 20, he lived the life of a girl in the court of King Nicomedes IV, and was later referred to as ‘Queen of Bithynia’, “every woman’s man and every man’s woman”.
Tiberius, meanwhile, dressed as a woman for his debaucheries on Capri, and Caligula sometimes showed up at banquets dressed as Venus. Nero, full of remorse after kicking to death his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, sought out a surrogate who resembled her – and found Sporus: not a woman, but a young man. Nero’s people castrated the ex-slave, and the couple married. Sporus joined Nero in bed with Pythagoras (another freedman Nero had married), who nightly played the role of husband in their troilism. Sporus routinely accompanied Nero decked out as his empress.
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Nero, who is said to have enjoyed incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, starred in the notorious banquets of Tigellinus: draped in the skins of wild animals, he would be released from a cage to ‘mutilate’ orally the genitals of men and women bound to stakes.
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Let us turn now to Messalina, empress to Claudius: queen of the imperial whores, she is said to have regularly snuck out of bed while Claudius slept to visit a fetid brothel, using the working name ‘Lycisca’ (‘Wolf Bitch’). Roman author Pliny the Elder tells the distasteful story of Messalina’s epic orgy, in which she challenged a veteran prostitute to a 24-hour sex marathon. The empress won with 25 partners – one client per hour.
On a more mundane level, the poet Ovid insisted that some elite women were partial to ‘a bit of rough’ – a sentiment echoed by Petronius in his Satyricon [a novel about Roman society], which describes how some upper-class women burned with desire for men of the lower orders – dancers, bin-men and gladiators.
Sex also features prominently throughout the short “unspeakably disgusting life” of emperor Elagabalus (AD c203–22), a notorious transgressor and deviant, beset by gender confusion and depravity. However, he could not be accused of lacking a sense of humour; according to the sensationalist Historia Augusta [a collection of biographies of Roman emperors, heirs, and claimants from Hadrian to Numerianus]:
“he took lust in every orifice of his body, sending out agents in search of men with large penises to satisfy his passions… The size of a man’s organ often determined the post he was given. He habitually locked his friends up when they were drunk and suddenly, in the night, let into the room lions, leopards and bears – surreptitiously rendered harmless – so that when they woke up these friends would find at dawn, or worse, during the night, [wild animals] in the same bedroom as themselves. Several of them died [of shock] as a result of this.”
Things went further still when Elagabalus offered huge fortunes to any physician who could give him permanent female genitalia or, in the words of Roman historian Cassius Dio, “to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision”.
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Fast-forward to AD 525 and sex was still a major aspect of Roman life. Theodora, who was empress to Justinian I, worked in a Constantinople brothel performing mime and obscene burlesque. One of her star roles was as Leda in Leda and the Swan; this involved lying on her back while other actors scattered barley on her groin. The barley was then pecked up by geese masquerading as Zeus. Inviting fellow actors to copulate with her on stage was another of Theodora’s party pieces.
But Theodora was later transformed into virtual sainthood with her raft of social reforms protecting women from physical and sexual abuse and discrimination, enacted when she assumed the position of empress.
Paul Chrystal is the author of In Bed with the Romans (Amberley Publishing, 2015).
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015