Love, Sex and Marriage in Ancient Rome

The Romans had highly ambivalent attitudes to sex.

Posted Jun 24, 2012

[Article updated on 28 August 2017]

Sex is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. —Marcus Aurelius

Source: Pixabay

In Rome, infant daughters were more likely to be exposed (abandoned) because they would not carry the family name and would require a dowry to wed. Although women from leading families were taught to read and write, the vast majority did not receive any formal education. A woman married soon after puberty, and her 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 sine manu in which case she could hold property in her name. But a woman who had married sine manu had to have a guardian or tutor, usually her father, who would determine how she could or couldn’t use her property. A tutor had considerable powers, and could force his tutee out of one marriage and into another, more expedient one. That said, not all families observed these practices, particularly if the head of the family had died on campaign; and by the time of Augustus, citizen women with at least three children became legally independent or sui iuris.

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 their male children; and, although they were forbidden to drink of the adulterous wine, and to be seen on stage, they were otherwise free to attend dinner parties, baths, and circuses. There were, of course, a few formidable women who broke the mold, and many if not most women exercised an important influence over their husbands, sons, and brothers—even when, as with Agrippina the Younger (15-59), these happened to be emperors. According to Tacitus, Agrippina visited astrologers to ask about the future of her son, Nero. The astrologers predicted that Nero would become emperor and would kill her. 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 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 appear modest and to limit her social interactions with men other than her husband and male relatives. Divorce, however, did not attract any stigma or prejudice, and upper class divorcees or widows were encouraged, even expected, to remarry after a suitable period of mourning. Pudicitia stood for reason and control, whereas impudicitia—that is, shamelessness and sexual vice (struprum, ‘sex crime’)—stood for chaos and disaster. A univira was held in high esteem and even idealized, with the emperor Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) going so far as to enact a programme of legislation to promote the notion and its observance. The historian Livy (59 BC-17 AD) upheld the legendary figure of Lucretia as the epitome of pudicitia, and it is possible that her rape and subsequent suicide are an allegorical tale constructed to uphold Roman values and justify the rise of the Republic from the dunghill of the monarchy. Other Roman writers to have pored over the concept of pudicitia include Valerius Maximus, Cicero, Tacitus, and Tertullian.

All this is not to say that the Romans were prudes, or that they never lost sight of their high ideals. Later Christians may have exaggerated the degree of their depravity, but it cannot be denied that they had, to say the least, ambivalent attitudes to sex. In contrast to their women, it was entirely accepted and even expected for freeborn men to have extramarital sex with both female and male partners, especially adolescents, provided that they (1) exercised moderation, (2) adopted the active, or dominating, role, and (3) 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 male citizens, were strictly off limits. The first century Stoic philosopher Musonius, 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, surely they ought to exercise even greater control over themselves. 

The Romans sought to control female sexuality to protect the family and, by extension, social order, prosperity, and the state. They crystallized these notions in the cult of Venus, the mother of Aeneas, founder of Rome; and in the Vestal Virgins, the priestesses of the hearth goddess Vesta, who would be buried alive if convicted of fornication. 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’). Roman religion very much reflected and regulated sexual mores, with the male-female duality enshrined in the pairings of the 12 Dii Consentes or major deities (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Olympian gods): Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta, and Mercury-Ceres. Many religious festivals, such as the Liberalia, Floralia, and Lupercalia, to say nothing of the banned Bacchanalia, incorporated an important element of sexuality.

The Vestal Virgins tended, among others, 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 Palladium, Lares, and Penates of Troy and the eternal fire, the fascinus populi Romani assured the ascendency 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 land and safeguard the crops—after which a virtuous matron placed a wreath on top of the phallus. Smaller talismans in the form 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.

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 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 realities—of military defeat. In 46 BC, Caesar submitted, or appeared to have submitted, to Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, leading to the disparaging title, ‘the Queen of Bithynia’. A popular quip at the time ran: Gallias Caesar subegit, Caesarem Nicomedes (‘Caesar subjugated Gaul, and Nicomedes Caesar). According to the historian Polybius, who wrote in the 2nd century BC, 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. Latin does not have a strict equivalent for the noun ‘homosexual’, which is relatively recent in coinage and concept; but a minority of men did, then as today, express a clear same-sex preference or orientation—most famously the emperor Hadrian, who founded a city in memory of his beloved Antinous, and even had him deified.

Most extramarital and same-sex activity took place with slaves and prostitutes. Slaves were regarded 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. By becoming a prostitute, a freeborn person 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. Members of these groups, which had in common the pleasuring of others, could be subjected to violence and even killed with relative impunity.

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 a poem that had long been censored, Martial’s wife catches him with a boy. When she offers him anal intercourse to encourage fidelity, he replies that anal sex with boys cannot compare to anal sex with women: ‘you, my wife, have got no more than two c*nts.’ 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. Horace had a mirrored room for sex, and Tiberius, who reigned from 14 to 37, stocked his bedrooms with the sex manuals of Elephantis. In Ancient Rome as in Victorian England, virtuous restraint often went hand in hand with licentious abandon, the one exposed to the glare of the public arena and the other hidden away in closed rooms and shady nooks.

And so, according to Seneca:

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: Should I Get Married?Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, and other books.

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Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton


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.