What Sex Was Like in Ancient Rome
Sex in ancient Rome is often viewed as scandalous and explicit. We see their art mounted in modern museums as shocking and provocative, but history tells a much more complex story. It is important to note that we carry negative connotations while observing depictions of ancient Roman sexuality through the condemning Christian lens that followed soon after.
Sex and Religion
Religious ideals were held in the highest esteem by the state in ancient Rome. Following the model established by the gods, was considered synonymous with the well-being of the Roman empire. A pillar aspect of the paradigm set by the gods was built around marriage and sexual behavior. The roman equivalent of the Greek Olympians, Dii Consentes, consisting of six divine male and female couples, had a great impact on the sexual hierarchy in ancient Rome.
The model set forth by the gods gave more sexual freedom to the male gods as they were frequently depicted engaging in extramarital relationships without condemning. On the other hand, goddesses were displayed as chaste and faithful to their husbands. The influence of this patriarchal sexual paradigm during that period can be seen in the clear divide between women who serve the goddess Vesta, commonly known as the Vestal Virgins, who make a vow of celibacy, and between the male priests who were expected to marry.
Sex was also celebrated publicly in religious festivals, where prostitutes would play a central role. The festival known as the Floralia, in honor of the goddess Flora would include nude dancing and sexual plays.
Marriage and Infidelity
The Romans may have brought us Valentine’s Day but their ancient notion of love may not sound as romantic. In fact, marriage for most Romans was only for procreation or financial purposes. That means romantic love or sexual gratification between spouses was unusual and rare.
Marital sex was very much one-sided; the man was expected to penetrate and the woman was expected to receive. Women needed to be compliant and dutiful without demanding anything other than a child.
Not only that but wives could not protest their men’s sexual escapades with other objects of desire including unmarried mistresses, male prostitutes, or slaves. However, infidelity for women is another story, sometimes even punishable by law like the Lex Iulia de adulteriis (“Julian Law concerning acts of adultery”) passed by Augustus, Rome’s first emperor in 18 BC. In literature, there are depictions of violence and even castration of the wife’s lover by the wronged husband defending his honor.
As for divorce, adultery was considered a sound basis for separation but there was apparently no stigma surrounding divorce itself. After ten months had passed, widows were expected to remarry.
Sex and Morality
In ancient Rome, male sexuality was characterized by a higher degree of freedom as extramarital affairs were not frowned upon, and men frequented brothels in a public and open fashion. However, men were also held to a certain standard of virtue, and the unwritten code of moral conduct known as mos maiorum, in which masculinity was characterized by self-control and indulgence in excess was highly condemned.
While the sexual conduct of the ancient Romans was characterized by the highest degree of freedom in that era, it was also governed by some laws, set to protect free roman citizens and their religious views during that time. If these lines were crossed the offender would be punished by law, often with the death penalty. For example: committing the crime Incestum, meaning to violate a family member or a person who has vowed to remain celibate (state of voluntarily being unmarried) was punishable by death. The rape of a free Roman citizen was also punishable by death.
Although Roman law did not recognize same-sex marriage, these kinds of relationships were quite common in ancient roman culture. Sex between free or married powerful men with male prostitutes or slaves was considered acceptable. However, the penetrated or “passive” man was deemed weak and emasculated compared to the dominating freeborn.
Since lesbian sex does not contain penetration, the dominating male’s role, both women were condemned. Depictions of lesbian sex in the Imperial era by male writers are mostly penetration-oriented as well, picturing one of the women penetrating the other using a dildo or her unusually large clitoris. The dominating woman was thought to wear men’s clothes, adopt a male’s attitude and behavior, and desire penetrative sex with both men and women.
Under the Christian Empire at the end of the 4th century, “passive” homosexuality started becoming punishable by burning. Later in the Justinian era, all kinds of homosexuality were declared punishable by death.
Conditional freedom, idolizing gods, and the evolution of the political and social culture, all heavily influenced Roman sexuality. As we dig deep into what sex was like in Ancient Rome, we understand more and more about the culture of a society, which is considered one of the most iconic in the world.
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