Sexuality in the Roman Empire

A Society of Classes
At the outset, we must come to terms with the class nature of Roman society. Not a simple understatement (for all societies have social strata of one sort or another) but a vital part of determining the mores that would govern how free Romans, particularly those of higher status, would act.

House of Epigrams (Fresco)For the wellborn, slaves were omnipresent. A household would posses many whose purpose was to cater to every need of the owner. The most mundane tasks we do for ourselves today– dressing, tying the sash of a sandal, or even combing hair – were performed by slave attendants. Recall the phrase in the gospel referencing one’s worthiness to "remove his sandals." The owner was permitted to brush their own teeth, but even here a personal option not exercised by all. Though the slave was always nearby the master considered their presence as irrelevant. Think of this as similar to how you might act today in the presence of your household dog or cat. In other words, when we speak of the times Romans were alone it doesn’t actually mean they were by themselves. Quite the contrary, often the slave was present even in the most intimate of settings. The master’s bedroom contained the slave’s cot, and unless the lovers requested its removal for an evening it can be assumed it was occupiedPompeii Venus by the slave ready to respond to the master’s request. (Do YOU put the dog out before lovemaking?) One example recorded is of a man caught in his lover’s bedroom dissimulating that he was not indeed there for the lady of the house, but for the slave who obviously laid nearby. One humorist wrote, "When Andromache mounted Hector their slaves stood at the door masturbating."

What drove Roman mores then is an issue of rank position and power derived therein. It was never becoming for the Roman to do, act, or be seen in any manner which would undermine their position of power. Take the seemingly simple issue of nudity; today’s blanket assumption of embarrassment, (or dare we still say shame?) from being seen naked is an unknown principle in Rome. To be seen naked by a slave was as insignificant as being seen in that state by a pet canary. But the inverse, to be seen naked by someone of higher status was considered cause for anxiety. The master removes the slave’s clothing for the explicit purpose of shaming them and reinforcing the power they maintain over them. This helps place in context the crucifixion where Jesus and all such executed subjects were stripped naked. Nudity among peers, such as at the baths, was understood in a totally different light. In this case, how one carried themselves while naked was a sign of status.

Sexual Relations
Roman Fresco showing two loversFar from being a society of libertines, the Romans observed several sexual taboos which begin to focus our understanding of their true nature. Love making was to occur only at night, with the exception of newlyweds who were accorded the exception for the day after the wedding. The room was to be darkened by extinguishing the lamp and the woman having left her brassiere on was never completely naked. (As observed in adjacent  fresco)   Note the delicate balance in this dance of sexual mores: The male appears naked as the dominate master, and at the same time the woman is afforded the honor of being cloaked in darkness and at the same time almost ritualistically clothed so as not to completely demean her status to that of an actual slave….even though in the love drama that is indeed the role she was expected to play.

Roman Relief SculptureThe union between two individuals – heterosexual or homosexual – was considered a pleasurable fact and posed no moral problem for the upper-class Roman elite...although more complex than this statement implies. The moral condemnation rested not in the general sense that an act was committed, but in the dangers of undermining the power status of the individual in how the act was engaged. Subservience was in all cases considered demeaning to the Roman. In lovemaking, the man was never to be dominated. Where permissible for the woman to give oral pleasure to the man, it was unacceptable for the man to reciprocate without appearing servile and weak. If the woman straddled her lover, it was to serve him and if necessary – much as a slave – do all the work. Even more feared were amorous passions extending beyond the boudoir resulting in the man becoming a slave to passions. (Ovid’s Book of Love provided the cure for this ailment.) Read Excerpt from Ovid's "The Art of Love"

In this light, the famed excess of Roman leaders is better understood as an exaggerated display of macho-male domination used to further reinforce their power. Whether it be the harem of Nero, or the slave boys of Tiberius, the display purpose wasWind Chimes from Pompeii the same – to dominate through passively being served by the slave. Messalina, the wife of Claudius, provides an intriguing example of the feminine manifestation. When becoming fixated on a male subject (given she was Empress, obviously one of lower rank) she would force their compliance to her sexual demands through threats of depriving them of their property, liberty, or even their lives. In this case the male symbol of strength in intercourse, was replaced by frequency. (Claudius eventually had her and all her "lovers" killed. I suspect due more to power than jealously.)

In this context, homosexuality is seen quite differently. The stigma was not attached to the homosexual act per se, but to the male that accepted the passive position. Where there was no stigma for the female to be the "slave" to the male in lovemaking (this being the natural order as it were…) it was for the male who willingly subjected himself to another male of greater power. To be sodomized was the height of passivity and for a free man symbolized a lack of self-respect. This is not a democratic distribution of sexual mores and stigma. Could it be, that in the ancient story of Gilgamesh the people’s ridiculing and taunting of Enkidu was not just a response to his fear of going to the Cedar Forest? Accepting the relationship between these two as a given, might we have here the discriminatory distribution of sexual stigma? Was Enkidu ridiculed for accepting the servile sexual position regardless of having fought to a stalemate in a public display of equal power?

Satyr & Nymph (Mosaic)Pederasty
References in Rome (or earlier ancients for that fact) to sexual relations with children was common. Again, understanding the context requires keeping the status or rank of the figures involved always in mind. The wellborn Romans became accustomed to keeping boy and girl slave children around the house as what can only be described as child-pets. In the most fundamental sense they were cute, and having them around at dinner, or evening to play with was accepted as privilege of rank.  Birds, dogs, rabbits -  Romans preferred live toys in general. The child-pet could be treated as a passive sexual object without danger of degrading the adult master’s power or effecting the child’s status which was passive by nature. At the first sign of maturity (masculinity in the case of the boy) everything changed by virtue of the elevation of the child to adult status. In other words treating the adult male in such a passive manner as already discussed was viewed very differently. Any masters that kept their child-pets after they stopped growing was considered reprehensible.

As Paul Veyne relates, "…it was proverbially held that sex with boys procures a tranquil pleasure unruffling the soul." Examples abound in almost overwhelming abundance. Ovid relates the story of Ganymede as boy lover to Jove, as well as his description of Orpheus who turns to boys as a tranquil consolation after having lost his wife.When revealed in public these relationships were most often met with good natured humor or what appears to be a playful taunting of the adult master.  (The image shown below is a Baroque painting by Rubens showing Jove’s Abduction of Ganymede. The Baroque was never an age noted for its subtlety!)Rubens: Abduction of Ganymede

In some cases the affection felt for the child was indeed more than as a play object. Deep affection could grow between the adult and child – which in no way assumes this to be a blood relation. In some ways closer attachment could be lavished on the child-pet than on one’s own son because of the son's eventual claim to inheriting family fortune and power. Just how close do you want to become to someone who stands to gain from your death…natural or otherwise?

This final return to the opening premise always focusing our attention on the Roman obsession with rank and position reveals other interesting possibilities. The child-pet if awarded their freedom by the master might then become the owner of their father, who could (for a handsome price) be bought as a slave. The conflicting paradox of power this would create would be pernicious, and more than one family in history would collapse under its weight.