[Article revised on 26 April 2020.]
Sex, said the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, ‘is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus.
In Rome, female infants were much more likely to be exposed (abandoned) because daughters required a dowry to wed and did not carry on the family name.
A woman’s highest duty, both to her husband and to Rome, was to bear a vigorous son who might one day follow in his father’s estate.
A woman could marry cum manu, becoming, in legal terms, a daughter of her husband; or she could marry sine manu and hold property in her own name. However, a woman who married sine manu had to have a guardian or tutor, usually her father, to determine how she could or could not use ‘her’ property. A tutor had considerable powers, and could force the woman out of one marriage and into another, more expedient, one.
That said, not all families observed these practices, particularly if the pater familias, or head of the family, had died on campaign; and by the time of Augustus (d. 14 CE), freeborn women could become sui iuris, or legally independent, if they had three or more children.
Roman women, even if sui iuris, could not vote or assume public office, and upper class women in particular were largely confined to running the home.
But in contrast to the women of Classical Athens, who were regarded as chattel and were, in some respects, worse off than slaves, Roman women played an important role in the raising of children, including male children, and, although forbidden to drink wine (on the grounds that it might drive them to adultery), or be seen on stage, were otherwise free to attend dinner parties, baths, and circuses.
There were, of course, a few formidable women who flagrantly flouted these rules, and many if not most women exercised an important influence over their husbands, sons, and brothers—even when, as with Agrippina the Younger (d. 59 CE), these all happened to be emperors.
One day, Agrippina visited some astrologers to inquire into the future of her son, Nero. The astrologers predicted, correctly, that Nero would become emperor, but also kill his mother. According to Tacitus, a historian and near contemporary, Agrippina replied, ‘Let him kill me, so long as he becomes emperor.’
Both women and men, but especially women, were supposed to uphold pudicitia, a complex virtue that can be translated roughly as ‘restraint’ or ‘chastity’.
A woman with a high degree of pudicitia, that is, a univira or ‘one-man woman’, sought at all times to uphold modesty and limit her social interactions with men to her male relatives.
Pudicitia stood for reason and control, whereas impudicitia—that is, shamelessness and sexual vice (struprum, ‘sex crime’)—stood for chaos and disaster.
The Romans held pudicitia in the highest esteem and idealized those who most embodied it, with Augustus going so far as to enact a programme of legislation to promote its observance, and, famously, exiling his own daughter Julia for adultery and treason.
Livy, a historian and contemporary of Augustus, upheld the legendary figure of Lucretia as the epitome of pudicitia, and it is possible that her rape and subsequent suicide (a popular subject in Renaissance art) are an allegorical tale evolved to uphold Roman values and justify the rise of the Republic from the old, corrupt monarchy.
The Romans, like much everyone else, sought to control female sexuality to protect the family and, by extension, social order and the state.
They crystallized these notions in the cult of Venus, the mother of Æneas, founder of Rome; and in the Vestal Virgins, the priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth.
To violate a Vestal Virgin’s vow of chastity was to commit an act of religious impurity (incestum), and thereby to undermine Rome’s compact with the gods, the pax deorum (‘peace of the gods’).
In turn, a Vestal Virgin ran the very real risk of being buried alive if ever convicted of fornication.
Roman religion reflected, and at the same time regulated, sexual mores, with the male-female duality enshrined in the pairings of the twelve Dii Consentes, or major gods (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Olympian gods): Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta, and Mercury-Ceres.
A number of annual religious festivals, such as the Liberalia, Floralia, and Lupercalia, to say nothing of the banned Bacchanalia, incorporated an important and ritualized element of sex.
The Vestal Virgins tended to the cult of the fascinus populi Romani, the sacred image of the divine phallus and male counterpart of the hearth of Vesta. Like the eternal flame, also guarded by the Vestal Virgins, or the Palladium, Lares, and Penates of Troy, the fascinus populi Romani assured the ascendancy and continuity of the state.
Similarly, during the Liberalia, devotees of the god Liber Pater carted a giant phallus through the countryside to fertilize the fields and safeguard crops—after which a virtuous matron would crown the phallus with a garland or wreath.
Smaller talismans in the shape of a penis and testes, often winged, invoked the protection of the god Fascinus against the evil eye. These charms, or fascini, often in the form of a ring or amulet, were most commonly worn by infants, boys, and soldiers.
As you are no doubt aware, the Romans often lost sight of their high ideals—although later Christian writers may have exaggerated the extent of their depravity.
In particular, it was entirely accepted, and even expected, for freeborn men to have extramarital relations with both female and male partners, especially adolescents, provided that they:
- Exercised moderation,
- Adopted the active, or dominant, role, and
- Confined their activities to slaves and prostitutes, or, less commonly, a concubine or ‘kept woman’.
Married or marriageable women who belonged to another freeborn man, and young freeborn males, were strictly off limits.
The Stoic philosopher Musonius (d. c. 100 CE), a rare voice at the time, criticized the double standard that granted men much greater sexual freedom than women, arguing that, if men are to presume to exercise control over women, they ought, surely, to exercise even greater control over themselves.
Most extramarital and same-sex activity took place with slaves and prostitutes.
Slaves were considered as property and lacked the legal standing that protected a citizen’s body.
A freeman who forced a slave into having sex could not be charged with rape, but only under laws relating to property damage, and then only at the instigation of the slave’s owner.
Prostitution was both legal and common, and often operated out of brothels or the fornices (arcade dens) under the arches of a circus.
Most prostitutes were slaves or freedwomen. A freeborn person who fell into prostitution suffered infamia, that is, loss of respect or reputation, and became an infamis, losing her or his social and legal standing.
Other groups that incurred infamia—a concept that still retains some currency in the Roman Catholic Church—included actors, dancers, gladiators, and other entertainers, which is why Roman women were forbidden from being seen on stage.
Members of these groups, which had in common the pleasuring of others, could be subjected to violence and even killed with relative impunity.
A freeborn man’s libertas, or political liberty, manifested itself, among others, in the mastery of his own body, and his adoption of a passive or submissive sexual position implied servility and a loss of virility.
Homosexual behaviour among soldiers not only violated the decorum against sexual intercourse among freeborn men, but also compromised the penetrated soldier’s sexual and therefore military dominance, with rape and penetration the symbols, and sometimes also the harsh realities, of military defeat.
According to the historian Polybius (d. c. 125 BCE), the penalty for a soldier who had allowed himself to be penetrated was fustuarium, that is, cudgelling to death, the same punishment as for desertion.
By some twisted Roman logic, a man who was anally penetrated was seen to take on the role of a woman, but a woman who was anally penetrated was seen to take on the role of a boy.
In one of the censored poems of Martial (d. c. 103 CE), the poet’s wife catches him with a boy. When she offers him anal sex to encourage fidelity, he replies that anal sex with a tight boy is beyond compare to anal sex with a woman: ‘you, my wife, have got no more than two cunts.’
Latin does not have a strict equivalent for the noun ‘homosexual’, which is relatively recent both in coinage and concept; but a minority of men did, then as today, express a clear same-sex preference or orientation—most famously the poet-emperor Hadrian, who founded a city in memory of his beloved Antinous and even had him deified.
Since Roman men could and often did indulge in extramarital sex, it might be assumed that Roman marriage was all duty and dour.
However, the houses and bedrooms of the nobility were often decorated with erotic scenes ranging from elegant dalliance to explicit pornography.
The poet Horace (d. 8 BCE) had a mirrored room for sex, and the emperor Tiberius (d. 37 BCE) stocked his bedchambers with the saucy sex manuals of Elephantis.
In Ancient Rome as in Victorian England, virtuous restraint often went hand in hand with licentious abandon, the one put on display in the public arena and the other hidden away in closed rooms and shady nooks.
And so, according to Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and unhappy tutor to Nero:
Virtue you will find in the temple, in the forum, in the senate house, standing before the city walls, dusty and sunburnt, her hands rough; pleasure you will most often find lurking around the baths and sweating rooms, and places that fear the police, in search of darkness, soft, effete, reeking of wine and perfume, pallid or else painted and made up with cosmetics like a corpse.
See my related article, Love, Sex and Marriage in Ancient Egypt
Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse and other books.
Tacitus, Annals XIV. Trans. Neel Burton.
Suetonius, De vita Caesarum, Divus Augustus para. 65. Trans. Robert Graves.
Livy, History of Rome.
Musonius Rufus, On Sexual Indulgence.
Polybius, Histories VI.
Martial, Epigrams XI:XLIII.
Seneca, On the Happy Life VII.