When people think about love and sex in ancient Rome, it tends to be pretty scandalous: orgies here, there, and everywhere! But the truth is rarely black and white. Were the Romans more sexually liberated than we are today? The answer is not straightforward. At first glance, ancient Rome can look remarkably sexually liberated, but when we look just under the surface, we find that there was a disturbingly seedy underbelly.
Roman Sexuality: The Rules of the Game
Behavior in Rome, sexual and otherwise, was dictated by two sets of rules. The first set of rules was known as the mos maiorum , which translates to “the way of the elders”. It was an unwritten code of honor. If someone broke these rules, no one was going to come and arrest them, but they wouldn’t get invited to many parties either.
These rules were unwritten, but the basic idea was that a good Roman man should fornicate as much as he wanted, as long as he didn’t do anything too embarrassing. A free-born Roman man always took an active role during sex.
For women, mos maiorum meant being chaste and only having sex with their husband. It also meant sex was for the husband’s enjoyment; female enjoyment wasn’t a consideration.
The second set of rules was the written laws of the land. These supposedly treated men and women equally. In practice, they were incredibly lopsided. It cannot be stressed enough that these laws were mainly there to protect the interests of free-born Roman men.
For the most part, at least until the Christian emperors came in, there was a separation between the state and what people did behind closed doors. The state only stepped in if the status quo was at risk of being upset. As such, there were only really four things that Roman law was interested in when concerning sex:
Incestum: You could be in big trouble if you violated a family member, free-born Roman citizen, vestal virgin, or anyone who had made a vow of celibacy. Incestum meant you didn’t have sex with anyone you didn’t have any business having sex with.
Castitas: This area covered women who had chosen a life of chastity. For example, if a vestal virgin (kind of like a Roman nun) tried to break her vow, she would face a severe penalty. More often than not it was death.
Raptus: This covered abduction and kidnappings where the goal was to have sex with your victim. The law also persecuted the victim if they were willing participants, however. For example, if a young woman eloped without her father’s consent she and the groom could both face charges under raptus.
Stuprum: This covered rape and adultery. The rape of a free-born Roman citizen was taken incredibly seriously. It was seen as an assault on the Roman Empire itself. Likewise, an extramarital affair with a married Roman citizen undermined the family values which underpinned the Empire. Stuprum was taken very seriously.
The Romans of Decadence, 1847, Thomas Couture ( 1815-1879). ( Jean Louis Mazieres /CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
How Open Were Romans to Homosexuality?
One of the most common things we tend to hear when talking about sex in ancient Rome is that homosexuality was both legal and common. Roman attitudes to homosexuality are often used to paint a picture of a sexually liberal Rome. In reality, homosexuality was tied to views of what Romans deemed to be “masculine”.
Romans were obsessed with the concept of masculinity. It was a man’s job to procreate; therefore, men were penetrators. Anyone who wasn’t a penetrator was seen as weak and submissive. Anyone who took the passive role in sex was seen as lower. In the context of homosexuality, this meant homosexual sex was fine as long as you were the penetrator or ‘active’ partner.
However, any free-born male Roman citizen who allowed himself to be penetrated by another man was likely to be shunned. There was even a slang term for it; Gaius Lucilius, a satirist, described any free-born man who took the passive role as a scultimidonus, which translates to “asshole bestower”. A free-born Roman man could lose everything if was found to be a scultimidonus.
Homosexuality in the army also came with some harsh penalties. The Greek historian Polybius recorded that homosexual sex between soldiers was punished by fustuarium. What was fustuarium? Death by clubbing. Don’t think this was a moral ruling though. It was purely a military discipline issue. Commanders believed that soldiers entering same-sex relationships with each other would be bad for military discipline.
On the other hand, as free-born Roman males, Roman legionnaires were free to have same-sex intercourse with any slave, prostitute, or captive they came across. Indeed, the raping of male captives was a common way to show off a soldier’s sexual authority and masculinity. The Romans were not above using rape as a tool of war.
In a nutshell, homosexuality for men in ancient Rome was no big deal if you were a free-born male who liked taking the active role. Homosexual women weren’t quite so lucky. Women found to take part in same-sex relations usually faced condemnation. The reason for this was the presumed lack of penetration. Since it was believed that both women took a passive role during lesbian sex, both were condemned.
Even if a woman was thought to penetrate her female sexual partner, for example with the use of a dildo, this was still frowned upon. It was thought that the woman was taking the man’s role, probably dressed like a man, and likely wanted to penetrate men too.
A Graeco-Roman coin depicting sexual intercourse between a man and an adolescent ( Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0
Changing Attitudes towards Homosexuality in the Roman Empire
Of course, the Roman Empire was not static, and one of the largest, if not the largest, change the Roman Empire went through was the shift from a polytheistic pagan religion (Jupiter, Mars, Venus, etc.) to Christianity. Unsurprisingly, this had a major impact on how sexuality was viewed within the empire. The Romans went from having same-sex marriages to burning homosexuals at the stake within a disturbingly short period. The difference between the old religion, which celebrated sex, and the much more conservative views of Christianity meant that Rome became increasingly conservative when it came to sex.
In the early imperial years, same-sex weddings were not technically recognized by Roman law but were surprisingly common. How common? Even the emperors were doing it! It was recorded that in the 3rd Century AD, Emperor Elagabalus married a handsome young athlete named Zoticus in a public ceremony in Rome. By the 4th century AD, the Christian emperors had criminalized gay marriage. In the year 390 AD, homosexuality itself was declared illegal. Any free-born Roman caught indulging in homosexuality could be punished by burning.
Slave Market in Ancient Rome, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1884 painting ( Public Domain )
Sex and Slavery in Ancient Rome
So far one could be forgiven for thinking that for the most part, the Romans had a fairly positive approach to sex. However, we’ve only talked about free-born Romans so far. Things get much darker when you start to look at how slaves were treated, especially young male slaves.
Unsurprisingly, being a slave in Rome was deeply unpleasant. Slaves had quite literally zero rights. A slave was property and nothing else. The owner could do whatever he liked to his slaves. Sadly, this meant rape was an everyday part of life as a slave. A free-born Roman could rape, torture, mutilate, and kill his own slave and face no risk of prosecution. Or, if he wanted to make some money, he could prostitute his slaves to other Romans.
Young male child slaves were often described as puer delicatus or deliciae which translates to sweet and dainty. It was not uncommon for an owner to use his young male slaves for sexual gratification. Even worse, since these slaves had no rights, they were often used to satiate owners’ most base and disturbing desires. A Roman slave owner would do to his slaves what he would never dream of doing to his wife.
For example, in extreme cases, a puer delicatus would be castrated and dressed as a young girl. The castration was to prevent puberty, keeping the boys young and feminine looking. The trading of young eunuchs quickly became big business. The growing taste for young boys soon became a problem, and the senate had to become involved. In a rare case of slaves being granted protection, the Roman Senate passed legislation that banned the castration of slaves against their will for “lust or gain”.
Why did the Senate try to put a stop to the eunuch trade? Don’t think this was to protect the slaves. Part of the mos maiorum , the unwritten code of Roman honor, was that masculinity was characterized by self-control. The rapidly increasing trade in young eunuchs for sex was seen as the kind of excessive indulgence that the mos maiorum frowned upon.
Fragment from the front of a sarcophagus showing a Roman marriage ceremony. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
Romantic Love and Marriage
Most of what we know about love in ancient Rome comes from the work of famous writers and poets. These works show that the concept of romantic love existed in ancient Rome, but it appears that for the most part, it was more common outside of marriages than within them.
Marriage in Rome was all about procreation. Men and women married to produce free-born Romans who could then go out and do the same. The romance was of secondary importance, especially for the men, who were to go out and cheat at will.
There were three types of Roman weddings. The Conferreatio was the most common, and the closest to modern Western weddings. This type of wedding featured a ceremony where cake and bread were shared, and the bride’s hand was given by her father to the groom. Most free-born Romans were married in this way. The legal age for a girl to get married was 12 and for a boy, it was 15. However, it was much more common for young men to marry around the age of 26 because of the assumed difference in mental maturity between young men and women. This meant age gaps of over ten years were not uncommon.
The second type of wedding was called a Coemptio. This means “by purchase”; the groom bought the bride-to-be from her family. This is not particularly romantic, especially when you factor in that the bride-to-be had no choice in the matter. Finally, there was Usus. Usus is most akin to some cohabitation rules we have today. Essentially, if a man and woman lived together long enough without killing each other, they could share the same rights as a couple who had gone through the more traditional marriage process.
Marriage could be somewhat one-sided. The wife was basically expected to stay at home and wait for the husband to give her children. She was expected to love, cherish, and obey. On the other hand, as long as he didn’t go too crazy, the husband was free to have other sexual partners. Enslaved people, prostitutes, and unmarried mistresses were all available. As long as a man wasn’t found to be sleeping with another married person, there wasn’t much a wife could do about her cheating husband.
Wives, however, were expected to be chaste and loyal. A cheating wife not only had to deal with an angry husband, but could also have legal problems. Although a man could divorce a cheating wife, it was nearly impossible for a wife to divorce a cheating husband. She would need evidence that he was either abusive towards her or unable to sire children.
When assessing sexuality in Rome, there is a lot to take into account. We have to be very careful not to look through rose-tinted glasses or just pick and choose the parts we think seem the most liberated. To do so would be to ignore horrendous cruelty and potentially learn the wrong lessons.
Yes, in some ways Romans were much more sexually liberated than large parts of the world today. Women had the same legal rights as men. They had every right to sue an abusive husband and start various legal proceedings – but the truth of the matter is that the Roman Empire was patriarchal. Although women had the same rights in theory, in practice, women were still seen as subservient to their husbands. Infidelity was a one-way street for the most part.
Homosexuality may have been commonplace, and it sounds incredibly enlightened that there wasn’t even a Latin word to differentiate between same-sex and mixed relationships. Yet we also know that passive partners often faced prejudice. Roman homosexuality centered on power dynamics. The Roman view of homosexuality wasn’t liberal; it was just a result of their obsession with masculinity through penetration.
Finally, the darker side of Roman sexuality should not be ignored, including the treatment of slaves as sexual objects. Only free-born Roman citizens were protected from sexual abuse. Slavery is always abhorrent, but the treatment of young slave boys who were turned into eunuchs should turn the stomach.
Top image: Marble body lines of young naked Roman women of Renaissance Era Source: Neurobite / Adobe Stock)
By Robbie Mitchell