SEX IN ANCIENT ROME
scene from a fresco
in a Pompeii bath Sex was a common theme in Roman art and literature. Ovid once wrote, "Offered a sexless heaven, I's say no thank you, women are such sweet hell." The poet Propertius wrote in great detail about his sexual relations with his girlfriend Hostia. One fresco in Pompeii shows a guy with dick so big it is held up by a string. An erotic stucco mosaic from Pompeii features a couple having sexual intercourse sitting down.
The God Priapus has an enormous penis. He is sometimes pictured trying to chase after vestal virgins. There was secret cult that worshipped him. In classical Latin the word "vagina" means "sheath for a sword." In the Aeneid , Aeneas put his sword in his vagina.
Men often boasted of their love-making adventures on the walls of baths and other public buildings. Graffiti scrawled on the wall of a Pompeii bar claimed: 'I fucked the landlady.' Graffiti was often filled with bawdy and graphic details. The writers were not shy about naming names and even saying the time and place that encounters took place. Men men who preferred men seemed just as emboldened to list their conquests and as men who preferred women.
There is some evidence that the Romans used oiled animal bladders as condom-like sheaths. Roman women were told sperm could be expelled by coughing, jumping and sneezing after intercourse, and repeated abortions produced sterility.
Describing a Roman wedding night, social historian Paul Veyne wrote: "The wedding night took the form of a legal rape from which the woman emerged ‘offended with her husband’ who, accustomed to using his slave women as he pleased, found it difficult to distinguish between raping a woman and taking the initiative in sexual relations. It was customary for the groom to forego deflowering his wife on the first night, out of concern for her timidity; but he made up for his forbearance by sodomizing her."
Book: Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250 by John R. Clarke (Harry N. Abrams, 2003).
Debauched Roman Emperors and Their Families
from the Casa del Centenario in Pompeii Caligula had four wives, and raped one of his sisters and forced her to marry his male lover, Marcus Lapidus. He also made prostitutes out of his other sisters and made love to his friend's wives. After having sex with someone's wife he prohibited them from every having intercourse with their husbands again :then publicly issued divorce proceedings in their husband's name. Among the sweet nothings he whispered into the ears of his lovers was "Off comes this head whenever I give the word."
Outdoing even Caligula in terms of decadence was Empress Valeria Messalina, the wife of Claudius I. While her emperor husband was leading military campaigns across Europe to shore up the empire she was having scandalous affairs with palace courtiers, entertainers and soldiers. When a handsome actor refused to leave the stage to be her full-time lover the empress got her husband to order the actor to leave. After threes years of lovemaking the actor was covered with scars for which the empress rewarded him with statue of his attributes. [People's Almanac]
During one drunken escapade Messalina danced naked on top of a wooden platform at the forum. On another occasion she gilded her nipples, decorated her bedroom in the palace like a brothel, and invited all comers. And, on yet another occasion she challenged Rome's leading prostitute to a contest, which the empress won by "cohabiting 25 times...within the space of 24 hours." Later she slept with men with large real estate holding and condemned them to death afterwards so she could claim their property. Finally Claudius had enough—when she married another man in a public ceremony in which the newlyweds entertained the guest with some bedroom acrobatics—and ordered her killed. [People's Almanac]
Nero was also quite extreme. In his book Nero , Edward Champlin wrote: “Nero murdered his mother, and Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Nero also slept with his mother, Nero married and executed one stepsister, executed his other stepsister, raped and murdered his stepbrother. In fact, he executed or murdered most of his close relatives. He kicked his pregnant wife to death. He castrated and then married a freedman. He married another freedman, this time himself playing the bride. He raped a vestal virgin. He melted down the household gods of Rome for their cash value.”
The youthful Elagabulus (ruled A.D. 218-222) started dressing in drag shortly after he was named emperor. He enjoyed pretending he was a woman so much that he ordered the senate to address him as the "Empress of Rome." He once ordered 600 ostriches killed so his cooks could make him ostrich-brain pies. He made appointments by choosing men with the largest penises.
Tiberius reformed the execution of virgins. He decreed that condemned virgins should be deflowered by their executioners before their sentence was carried out.
Ancient Roman Brothels
from a Pompeii brothel Many towns had brothel-taverns. Cities often had brothel districts. But historians said that there were less of them than has been made out to be . The average tourist visit, according to Cambridge classic professor Mary Beard, was three minutes.
There were public brothels in Pompeii. Today the House of the Vetti (on V. della Fortuna) is one of the most popular villas at Pompeii. The Ixon Room in the villa looks a small art gallery. There are delightful murals with cherubs performing tasks like forging, goldsmithing and making weapons. The biggest draw are the erotic frescoes and statues. A fresco beside the entrance to the villa shows the god of fertility Priapus, whose penis is so large it is held up by a string. Off in a side room to the right of the Priapus entrance is statue of Priapus with his penis erect and erotic frescoes of couples having sexual intercourse sitting down and in other positions. In Roman times, rooms with erotic art were generally only for men and their concubines.
The skeleton of a woman with buck teeth at Herculaneum was judged to be a prostitute by the structure of her pelvic bones.
Many public baths were thought to double as brothels: One found at present-day Ashkelon in Israel contained a plastered tub that read “Enter, enjoy and ....” Many brothels were small and cramped. Many wealthy families rented out rooms that were used as brothels. The rent is thought to have helped maintain the luxurious lifestyle of their owners. These often had signs with short inscriptions that described what services were offered.
Excavations of an ancient sewer under a Roman bathhouse in Ashkleon in present-day Israel revealed the remains of more than 100 infants thought be unwanted children from the brothel. They infants had been thrown into a gutter along with animal bones, pottery shards and a few coins and are thought to have been unwanted because of the way they were disposed. DNA tests revealed that 74 percent of the victims were male. Usually unwanted children were girls.
At the top end of the sex trade were elegant courtesans A man captivated with a courtesan named Novelli Primigenia, who lived and worked in the “Venus Quarter” of Nuceria near Naples, wrote:“Greetings to you, Primgenia of Nuceria. Would that I were the gemstone (of the signet ring I gave you), if only for one single hour, so that, when you moisten it with your lips to seal a letter. I can give you all the kisses that I have pressed on it.”
Penises and Phalluses in Ancient Rome
Romans found nothing particularly lewd about the penis. Phalluses commonly showed up in art and religious ceremonies as symbols of power; the word "fascination" is derived from the phallic god Fascinus; and parents hung penis-shaped amulets around the neck of their child's to ward off the evil eye. Some people collected bronze amulets shaped like erect penises with bird or bat wings and human legs. Phallic symbols called faccinum were hung in kitchens and bedrooms.
Steve Coates wrote in the New York Times, “There seems to be phalluses everywhere. Enormous ones, tiny ones, doubles, singles; attached to men, gods or satyrs in every medium or in dismembered splendor; over doors, carved into the pavement, on chains and serving trays, turned into lamps, winged like birds, with bells on. Even some of the phalluses have phalluses. If they were good luck charms, as is sometimes thought, it obviously didn’t work.”
One of the first temples in Rome was dedicated to the god Mutanus Tutunis, who was represented by a penis-like form that newlywed kept in their bedroom on their wedding night and the bride sat on before sex to symbolize the loss of her virginity. In Roman mythology, Venus's son Pripaus maintained his eternal erection by consuming heaps of the herb rocket cress. The custom of Roman men to coddle their testicles may have to led to high rates of sterility.
Erotic Art and Oral Sex in Ancient Rome
Much of what we know about sex in the Roman era is based on images that have been found in brothels and villas, various objects of art, and erotic ceramic medallions from Gaul. Erotic ceramic medallions from Gaul show sex scenes with captions incised directly into the clay. One that shows a soldier making love with woman and crowning her with laurel wreath reads: “You alone conquer me.”
Brothel pictures depicted couples in flagrante and with , apostrophic penises. In Ashkelon in present-day Israel archaeologists found scores of palm-size ceramic oil lamps with mythical and sexual themes in a villa in wealthy part of town. Because the lamps had not been lit it is thought they were part of collection.
Steve Coates wrote in the New York Times, “Much of the art” in Pompeii is “highly eroticized, even when not bluntly pornographic. Much else can striker the modern viewer as bizarre—something out of Petronius or Apuleius rather than Cicero or Horace—like a fresco of the judgment of Solomon story enacted by pygmies.”
Adultery, incest and making love with a completely naked women were considered taboo. All forms oral sex for the most part were also regarded as taboo. Roman culture prized machismo. It was considered humiliating and demeaning for a man to perform oral sex on a women because it demonstrated subservience and servility to a woman. Oral sex was tolerated between homosexual men and enjoyed by men when it was performed by courtesans but it was considered distasteful among married couples.
Homosexuality in Ancient Rome
a vision of Emperor Hadrian and his lover Sexual contact among males occurred in the bath houses. Sex between women was regarded as taboo.
It is pretty well established that Hadrian was gay. He fell in love with a handsome boy from Asia Minor named of Antinous (Antinoüs, Antinoos), who became the emperor's companion. After of Antinous, drowned in the Nile im A.D. 130 at the age of 20, according to some theories to sacrifice himself to some mysterious cause, the grief-stricken Hadrian drowned his sorrows by placing statues of him all over the Roman Empire. ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
Cambridge classic professor Mary Beard wrote in New York Review of Books, “Antinous has a colorful history. He was the young Bithynian “favorite,” and presumably lover, of the emperor Hadrian, who drowned in mysterious circumstances in the river Nile in AD 130. “Did he jump, was he pushed or did he merely fall?” are questions that have never been resolved. Marguerite Yourcenar’s idea in her Memoirs of Hadrian that it was more than simple suicide, but a religious self-sacrifice, is one of many appealing, extravagant, and untestable theories. [Source: Mary Beard, New York Review of Books, March 3, 2010]
A statue of of Antinous depicted as the Egyptian god Orisis, with with a pleated loincloth and pharaoh-style striped cobra headdress, was found at Tivoli,. Hadrian built a city called Antinoplis to mark the site where his lover died. Later he tried to of Antinous deified and raised a large colonnaded temple at Tivoli dedicated to him.
Inspired by the tale of Phrygian goddess Cybelle, a cult of eunuchs was founded in Rome in 204 B.C.
Love in Ancient Rome
In the view of C.S. Lewis and some other scholars, romantic love did not emerge until relatively late, surfacing in the poems of French and Italian troubadours in the 11th and 12th centuries. But this theory does not seem to be born in evidence from Rome, where lovers were often described in myths and many poems and pieces of graffiti were expressions of love. One graffiti message went: “Lovers, like bees, lead a honeyed life.”
The most famous love poets in Rome were the naughty Catulus, the romantics Tibullus and Propertius, the epic Virgil and the love laborer Ovid.
Many pieces of love-related graffiti seem to have been written by love-struck young men. “Girl,” reads an inscription found in a Pompeii bedroom, “you’re beautiful I’ve been sent to you by one who is yours.” Others express missing a loved one in timeless fashion. “Vibius Restitutus slept here alone, longing for Urbana.” Others expressed urgency. “Driver,” one said. “If you could feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love a younger charmer, please spur on the horses, let’s get on.”
Erotic love was seen by some Greeks and Romans it seems as an accursed thing that attacked its victims in painful, suffering way...and could even kill them. . The A.D. 2nd century physician Galen spent a great amount of time, refuting a popular idea that erotic seizures are caused by the attack of a god who holds burning torches to the victim.”
Ovid and Love
Silver Favourites by Alma-Tadema Ovid is regarded as the premier Roman love poet. Brought up in the province to an equestrian family, he moved to Rome as a teenager and wrote about the sensuous life he enjoyed in upper class Roman society. Famed as a kind of Roman Casanova, he married three times, had a great many lovers and was involved in a highly-publicized sex scandal.
Ovid once wrote, "Offered a sexless heaven, I'd say no thank you, women are such sweet hell." He wrote that he learned about love from the mysterious Corinna who he rhapsodized about in his early Loves . As a teenager he wrote they were "two adolescents, exploring a booby-trapped world of adult passions and temptations, and playing private games, first with their society, then— liaisons dangeruses —with one another."
Ovid was also a great storyteller. His Metamorphosis told the story of the Greek gods in a Roman context. He also poked fun of them. His irreverence helped led to the tossing of the Greek gods and replacing them with Roman ones. Ovid originated many versions of the myth stories we know today such as the King Midas, golden touch tale.
Ovid's Love Poetry
by Alma-Tadema In the Art of Love , a carefully crafted "seducer's manual," Ovid wrote:
Love is a kind of war, and no assignment for cowards.
Where those banners fly, heroes are always on guard.
Soft, those barracks? They know long marches, terrible weather.
Night and winter and storm, grief and excessive fatigue.
Often the rain pelts down from the drenching cloudbursts of heaven.
Often you lie on the ground, wrapped in a mantle of cold.
If you are ever caught, no matter how well you've concealed it.
Though it is clear as the day, swear up and down it's a lie.
Don't be too abject, and don't be too unduly attentive.
That would establish your guilt far beyond anything else.
Wear yourself out if you must, and prove, in her bed, that you could not
Possibly be that good, coming from some other girl.
Love Between Husband and Wife in Ancient Rome
One wife wrote her husband, who was away: "Send for me—if you don't I'll die without seeing you daily. How I wish I could fly and come to see you...It tortures me not to see you."
Another wife, whose husband had entered a sanctuary wrote him: "When I received your letter...in which you announce that you have become a recluse in the Sarapis temple at Memphis, I immediately thanked the gods that you are well, but you are not coming here when all other recluses have come home, I do not like this one bit.”
David Konstan, a classic professor at Brown University, told U.S. News and World Report: “It was taken for granted that if the husband and wife treated each other properly, love would develop and emerge, and by the end of their lives it would be a deep, mutual feeling.” Displays of affection however were regarded with soem scorn. One senator was stripped of his seat because he embraced his wife in public.
On one epitaph a man wrote to his wife, apparently thanking her for help escaping capture for some crime: “ You furnished most ample means for my escape. With your jewels you aided me when you took off all the gold and pearls from your person, and gave them over to me. And promptly, with slaves, money, and provisions, having cleverly deceived the enemies’ guards, you enriched my absence.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [µ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2012